Reports: Obama to nominate former CTIA head Wheeler to be FCC chief

President Obama is expected to nominate former CTIA chief Tom Wheeler to be the next chairman of the FCC, according to multiple reports, which would place the former telecom industry lobbyist at the head of regulating an increasingly complex wireless industry.

According to the reports, which all cite unnamed administration or industry officials, an official announcement is expected today. Wheeler will succeed outgoing Chairman Julius Genachowski. According to the reports, Mignon Clyburn, the senior Democrat on the panel, will take over as interim chairwoman as Wheeler awaits confirmation by the Senate.

Wheeler has been considered the front-runner for several weeks for the position. The other main option is Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who received a letter of support last month from 37 senators.

Wheeler was president of the CTIA from 1992 to 2004 before joining D.C.-based venture capital firm Core Capital Partners as managing director in 2005. He also headed the National Cable Television Association from 1979 to 1984. Wheeler, who raised almost $250,000 for Obama's 2012 re-election effort, is seen as someone with the technology and policy chops to do the job. However, as a former lobbyist, he has also taken flak from public interest groups and some lawmakers.

Yet on Tuesday, ahead of the official announcement, Wheeler's prospective nomination received cautious support from Public Knowledge, a public interest group that has been one of Genachowski's more frequent critics for not doing enough to regulate the market. Public Knowledge President Gig Sohn said that Wheeler's past lobbying efforts should be viewed in context, and that the industries he was lobbying on behalf of were not nearly as concentrated or powerful as they are now.

"As someone who has known Tom for years, I believe that he will be an independent, proactive chairman who will not allow the FCC to become irrelevant as broadband becomes the dominant mode of communication in this country," Sohn said in a statement. "I also expect that he will carry out the president's communications policy agenda, which includes strong open Internet requirements, robust broadband competition, affordable broadband access for all Americans, diversity of voices and serious consumer protections, all backed by vigorous agency enforcement."

Others were less generous. Free Press President Craig Aaron said in a statement that the FCC "needs a strong leader--someone who will use this powerful position to stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest. On paper, Tom Wheeler does not appear to be that person, having headed not one but two major trade associations. But he now has the opportunity to prove his critics wrong, clean up the mess left by his predecessor, and be the public servant we so badly need at the FCC."

One of Wheeler's biggest challenges as chairman, should he be confirmed, will be the oversight of the FCC's voluntary incentive auctions of TV broadcast spectrum, which are currently scheduled to begin sometime next year. So far, broadcasters have been reluctant to give up their spectrum, and it is uncertain how much money and spectrum will be raised through the auction, as rules are still being drafted. In 2011, Wheeler criticized the broadcast industry for not making better use of their spectrum. "I've been mystified why broadcasters have declared jihad against the voluntary spectrum auction," Wheeler wrote.

"Getting big dollars for an asset for which you paid nothing while still being able to run your traditional business over cable," he added, "seems a pretty good business proposition--unless you really are serious about providing new and innovative services and need all that spectrum."

Meanwhile, Genachowski defended his record as he heads out of office. Specifically, Genachowski said moving to block the AT&T/T-Mobile deal was the right call. "Two and a half years ago, the U.S. mobile marketplace was on the doorstep of duopoly," he said. "Look at the market now."

Genachowski's comments are notable considering Wheeler, in postings to his blog, appeared relatively open to the idea of a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, albeit with conditions.

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this NYT article
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this Politico article
- see this The Hill article

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