Obama to Nominate Tom Wheeler as FCC Chairman

Former head of cable and telecom industry lobby on track to succeed Julius Genachowski at regulatory org


President Obama on Wednesday will announce that he is nominating Tom Wheeler, former head of the cable and telecom industry trade associations, as the next chairman of the FCC, a White House official told Variety.

Wheeler would succeed Julius Genachowski, who announced last month that he was stepping down from the post after nearly four years in the job. Obama also will announce that Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will serve as acting chair until Wheeler is confirmed.

Wheeler, currently a managing director at venture capital firm Core Capital Partners, has been a leading candidate for the post. He was president of the National Cable Television Assn. from 1979 to 1984, and led the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn. in the 1992 and until 2004.

Broadcasting and Cable reported last week that Wheeler was being vetted for the position.

Speculation that he would be the choice already had drawn some criticism from public interest groups that he would be in charge of regulating industries he once led as chief lobbyist.

But the White House official cited Wheeler’s extensive experience working in telecom policy and business development, noting that he has been “intimately involved” at the legislative and regulatory level. For instance, he led the industry to support the Cable Act of 1984, which created federal regulatory oversight of the cable business. He also had a hand in the development of high-speed data delivery over cable lines, leading to the growth of digital video distribution, and helped develop a plan for the transition from analog to digital television. He created the Wireless Foundation, which, among other things, provides mobile phone and Internet access to connect classrooms.

“He has the experience and the temperament to serve the agency with distinction, and we look forward to working with him,” Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said in a statement.

Wheeler also got the support of Gigi Sohn, president and CEO of Public Knowledge, which has been critical of Genachowski’s tenure as too soft on industry. In a statement, Sohn said that “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.”

She added, “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.”

That isn’t too say that Wheeler has sided with either broadcasters or public interest groups. In his blog, Mobile Musings, he has been critical of stations for not developing mobile services more quickly, an issue that has come to the fore with the startup Aereo providing digital streams of broadcast signals to subscribers. He also questioned broadcasters for their reluctance to embrace voluntary incentive auctions, which the FCC plans to hold next year as a way to free up airwaves for wireless use. But Wheeler also suggested that an AT&T and T-Mobile merger could help the FCC gain oversight over a large chunk of the wireless industry. The transaction was eventually shelved amid opposition from the FCC and the Justice Department.

Wheeler’s nomination comes after a somewhat unusual amount of public lobbying among interest groups and lawmakers on who Obama should select.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, had pushed Obama to nominate Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a former aide. In fact, Rockefeller organized 36 other senators to sign a letter to the president, urging him to make that selection.

The Women’s Media Center urged Obama to select a woman, the first in the FCC’s nearly 80-year history, and on Tuesday expressed disappointment. The only solace may be that Clyburn will be the first woman in the post on a temporary basis.

“We regret that President Obama did not recognize the need for a woman leader in this important FCC chair slot, though there were a number of highly qualified women under consideration,” Jane Fonda, a co-founder of the org, said in a statement.

Another co-founder, Gloria Steinem, said that Obama “missed an opportunity to make history and make the FCC more democratic.”

Speculation centered on Rosenworcel and Clyburn as possible picks, as well as Karen Kornbluh, ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Catherine J.K. Sandoval, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, a public interest group, expressed worry that Wheeler has represented two industry trade associations. He said that Wheeler “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.

A number of consumer and former government officials sent Obama a letter several weeks ago urging him to pick Wheeler, saying that he “understands the importance of reclaiming the pro-competition, pro-innovation, pro-growth regulatory ideal.” Among those who signed was Andrew Jay Schwartzman, who formerly led the public interest org Media Access Project.

A spokesman for Rockefeller did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Commerce Committee is charged with conducting confirmation hearings for Wheeler, as well as for another commissioner Obama has yet to nominate. Commissioner Robert McDowell also announced last month that he was stepping down.

In choosing Wheeler, Obama is selecting a nominee and former lobbyist who is a Beltway insider: He has long lived in Washington, and knows the president well. He was an Obama campaign bundler in 2008 and 2012, raising more than $500,000 in the recent election.He also was a member of the transition team after Obama’s election in 2008, focusing on science, technology, space and arts agencies.

Wheeler recently retired at chairman of the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications Policy, and previously served as chairman of the UN Foundation’s mHealth Alliance, chairman of the foundation for the National Archives and a board member of PBS.