U.S. President Barack Obama named prominent venture capitalist Tom Wheeler as his nominee to be the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, as expected. In a brief White House ceremony on Wednesday, Obama said that Wheeler will help give “businesses and workers the tools they need to compete in the 21st century economy.” Obama added that Wheeler is “the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame.” Wheeler, a former top cable and wireless industry lobbyist, raised more than $700,000 for Obama’s two presidential election campaigns.
Last month, TIME reported that Wheeler, 67, was the front-runner for the top FCC job. On Wednesday, Obama made it official. Referring to Wheeler’s lengthy experience as a lobbyist for two of the industries he will now be regulating, Obama joked that his nominee is “like the Jim Brown or Bo Jackson of telecom.” Earlier in his career, Wheeler served as president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA). Since his last job as a lobbyist in 2004, Wheeler has been a technology entrepreneur and executive at D.C.-based firm Core Capital Partners, which manages about $350 million.
Wheeler also “bundled” at least $700,000 in contributions to President Obama’s campaigns over the last two presidential election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — a fact that Obama neglected to mention during his announcement on Wednesday. Of course, Wheeler wouldn’t be the first major campaign supporter that Obama tapped to lead the FCC. Outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a former Harvard Law School chum of the president, was also a major campaign bundler for Obama. Wheeler did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Wheeler will confront several knotty issues. The FCC is currently weighing new rules about media ownership, and preparing for a complex wireless spectrum auction aimed at freeing up airwaves for consumer use. The agency also faces a closely watched legal challenge over its authority to enforce the “Open Internet” rules that are at the basis of net neutrality, the idea that broadband providers shouldn’t discriminate against rival services. In that lawsuit, telecom giant Verizon claims that the FCC overstepped its legal authority. The outcome of the case could have major implications for the FCC’s power to regulate broadband internet service.
Wheeler’s nomination presents a conundrum for public interest groups. On the one hand, Wheeler is a consummate D.C. insider who ran two major industry groups and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama. These facts make some in the public interest community suspicious, because they reinforce the stereotype that D.C.’s most desirable jobs tend to go to those with the best industry and administration connections.
On the other hand, Wheeler is well-liked and widely respected in tech policy circles. “He’s good people,” said a former Obama administration official. “Give him a chance.” Wheeler is not just a top Obama bundler, he’s a true believer. Wheeler and his wife Carol spent six weeks in 2008 campaigning for Obama in Iowa, where they worked the phones and knocked on doors for the candidate.
Many in the public interest community are indeed willing to give Wheeler a chance. “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,” said Gigi Sohn, president of the D.C.-based public interest group Public Knowledge. “I have no doubt that we will disagree with Tom at times. But I also have no doubt that Tom will have an open door and an open mind, and that ultimately his decisions will be based on what he genuinely believes is best for the public interest, not any particular industry.”
Others in the public interest community aren’t so sure. “The Federal Communications Commission needs a strong leader — someone who will use this powerful position to stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest,” said Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron. “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, be the public servant we so badly need at the FCC.”
Last month, Wheeler received a major boost when several prominent former Obama administration officials wrote a letter to the president supporting his candidacy. “Tom has had an impressive career in the telecommunications and high-tech field that makes him eminently qualified for this position,” the officials wrote. “He understands the importance of reclaiming the pro-competition, pro-innovation, pro-growth regulatory ideal.” The letter’s signatories included Susan Crawford, former Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. Crawford, currently a professor at Cardozo School of Law, is widely respected by the public interest community, and is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Guilded Age.
The largest cable and telecom companies — and their top lobbyists — welcomed Wheeler’s nomination. “With his significant experience in both the private and public sector, Tom is an exceptional choice to lead the Commission during a time when the telecommunications marketplace is experiencing significant innovation and incredible change,” said Michael Powell, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Powell, a former FCC chairman, is the cable industry’s top lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
Steve Largent, the wireless industry’s top D.C. lobbyist, was also effusive. ”On behalf of the wireless industry, we congratulate Tom on today’s announcement,” Largent said. “With his significant experience in both the private and public sector, Tom is an exceptional choice to lead the Commission during a time when the telecommunications marketplace is experiencing significant innovation and incredible change.”
Wheeler has been the FCC front-runner for months, as TIME reported in February. By virtually all accounts, he’s well-liked in D.C. and highly respected in the cable and telecom industry. The question is whether he’s ready for the intense public scrutiny that comes with being a nominee for chairman of the FCC. And more importantly, whether he’s ready to assume command of the U.S. agency that regulates the tech, telecom, cable and wireless industries, on behalf of the public.