Tom Wheeler was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Tuesday to lead the Federal Communications Commission, nearly six months after President Obama nominated him. Wheeler, a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist who once wrote a book about Lincoln and the telegraph, will take charge of the federal agency responsible for regulating the nation’s airwaves and the largest cable, satellite, phone and Internet companies.
Wheeler was confirmed after Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, lifted a hold he had placed on the nomination after Wheeler assured Cruz that implementing the requirements of the DISCLOSE Act, a stalled bill designed to bring greater transparency to political ad funding, is “not a priority” for the FCC. Mike O’Rielly, a Republican former Senate staffer, was also confirmed as a commissioner, bringing the FCC up to its full five-member complement.
The FCC is an intensely scrutinized and frequently politicized agency, because it wields the power to approve multi-billion dollar corporate mergers and allocate valuable wireless spectrum—the radio frequencies that make cellphones and satellites work—worth billions of dollars. The FCC is also at the center of a multi-year battle over the extent to which the federal government has the right to enforce rules designed to ensure that the Internet remains the open platform that has spawned two decades of innovation and economic growth.
“Chairman Wheeler is coming into office at a time when his leadership is sorely needed,” says Susan Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who co-led the FCC transition team between the Bush and Obama administrations. “He needs to take up the mantle of leadership and reclaim the regulatory ideal that has been ignored for the last ten years. Regulation of communications networks — making them affordable, dependable, first-rate, open, and ubiquitous — is essential for free, competitive markets in every sector to thrive.”
Wheeler is a well-regarded telecommunications industry veteran. Most recently, he was managing director at D.C.-based venture capital firm Core Capital Partners. Wheeler is also a longtime Obama loyalist who spent six weeks in Iowa with his wife Carol during Obama’s first presidential campaign, where they worked the phones and knocked on doors for the candidate. Wheeler raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama’s presidential campaigns, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. Obama nominated Wheeler to replace former FCC chair Julius Genachowski, who stepped down in March after a contentious term. For the last six months, the FCC has been led by acting chair Mignon Clyburn.
“I am humbled by the Senate’s confirmation and I look forward to taking the oath of office in the coming days,” Wheeler said in a statement Tuesday. “What excites me about this new responsibility is how we are at a hinge moment of history; the Internet is the greatest communications revolution in the last 150 years. We must all dedicate ourselves to encouraging its growth, expanding what it enables, and assuring its users’ rights are respected.”
In a statement, commissioner Clyburn said that Wheeler “brings a tremendous depth of experience, talent, and knowledge that will serve him well as the leader of this critically important agency,” and said she looks forward to working with Wheeler and new commissioner O’Rielly “to further communications policies that advance the public interest, bolster competition, empower consumers, and spur new waves of innovation that grow our economy and create jobs.”
Wheeler will immediately confront a series of thorny issues facing the FCC. The commission is preparing for a complex wireless spectrum “incentive auction” aimed at freeing up airwaves for consumer broadband use. The auction — currently scheduled for the summer of 2014 — calls for the FCC to sell unused wireless spectrum owned by TV broadcasters, who will receive a chunk of the proceeds, estimated in the billions of dollars. Wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon will be able to buy the newly available spectrum, and then deploy it to bolster mobile broadband networks nationwide to address the growing “spectrum crunch” fueled by exploding wireless data usage.
“The incentive auction is the most complicated spectrum auction the FCC or any government has ever done,” says Blair Levin, who served as chief of staff to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and more recently oversaw the development of the National Broadband Plan. “It would be easier for government to simply mandate transferring spectrum for broadband, but there was a consensus we should try a market based approach to determine the price at which some broadcasters would voluntarily sell to mobile providers.”
The FCC also faces a closely watched legal challenge over its authority to enforce the “Open Internet” rules that are 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 in creating the rules. The outcome of the case could affect anyone who uses the Internet, the tech giants who have built billion dollar businesses online and the thousands of startups that hope to follow in their footsteps.
Wheeler’s nomination presented 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 have made some in the public interest community skeptical, because they reinforce the stereotype that D.C.’s most high-profile jobs tend to go to those with the best industry and administration connections.
On the other hand, Wheeler has deep relationships throughout the cable and telecom community, which could help him craft the compromises necessary to forge good public policy. Brian L. Roberts, CEO of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company and owner of NBCUniversal, issued a statement praising Wheeler and saying that “the American people will be well-served by his proven leadership and in-depth knowledge of the communications industry.”
For now, the public interest community appears willing to give Wheeler a chance. “We had plenty of questions about the choice of Mr. Wheeler, but what matters is what you do once you’re sitting in the big chair,” says Craig Aaron, president and CEO of D.C.-based public interest group Free Press. “And there is a lot to do: Connecting all Americans to the wonders of the open Internet, encouraging meaningful competition, diversifying media ownership, and making sure that this crucial agency has the power to protect people everywhere when predatory or powerful corporations step over the line.”
Gigi B. Sohn, president and CEO of D.C.-based digital rights group Public Knowledge, issued a statement urging Wheeler to “preserve a strong FCC that will ensure an open, universally accessible and affordable communications system that serves all Americans. We also expect that he will carry out the President’s communications policy agenda, which includes robust open Internet requirements, vigorous broadband competition, affordable broadband access, diversity of voices and serious consumer protections, all backed by vigorous agency enforcement.”
Although the FCC is not a high-profile cabinet department like State, Justice, or Defense, its broad regulatory authority over giant swaths of the U.S. economy makes it a very powerful government agency. And as the Internet continues to transform American media, communications and society, FCC leadership will only become more important. The priorities that Wheeler sets, and the policies that he pursues, will have an impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans, not to mention the largest U.S. media, communications and technology companies.