Obama Picks One of Telecom's Most Powerful Industry Lobbyists to Head FCC

Tom Wheeler, former president and CEO for Cellular Telecom & Internet Association (CTIA), is Obama's reported nominee to chair the FCC. (Photo: Lori Cain/Bloomberg News)

Obama Picks One of Telecom's Most Powerful Industry Lobbyists to Head FCC

Groups say Tom Wheeler is wrong man 'to stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest'

Reports that President Obama will soon nominate a former venture capitalist and head of powerful tech industry lobbying groups as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was met with dismay by groups pushing for a more progressive choice to fill the vacant seat at the powerful regulatory agency.

The president's pick, Tom Wheeler, has served as both an informal adviser and key fundraiser for Obama and was for many years the head of two powerful industry associations.

As the Los Angeles Times reports:

From 1979 to 1984, Wheeler headed the National Cable Television Assn., since renamed the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. After eight years helping to create technology companies, Wheeler took over as head of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn. in 1992, leaving in 2005 to join Core Capital Partners.

Wheeler has been a longtime Obama supporter, raising $200,000 to $500,000 for the 2008 campaign and more than $500,000 for the 2012 campaign, according to Obama campaign disclosures.

If confirmed by the Senate, Wheeler would succeed outgoing Chairman Julius Genachowski, who is scheduled to end his tenure in the coming weeks.

Craig Aaron, president of the media reform group Free Press, was quick to question the troublesome choice of someone with such deep ties to the telecom industry, big finance, and the elite political machine of the Democratic Party.

"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 Aaron. "On paper, Tom Wheeler does not appear to be that person."

Free Press was not alone in its caution.

"I am skeptical that the former chief lobbyist of the wireless and cable industries will be capable of holding his former clients accountable for their ongoing shortcomings," said Sascha Meinrath, who heads the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation which advocates for net neutrality, better public access and other democratic media initiatives.

Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, speaking with the Los Angeles Times also questioned the Obama's choice, saying it would be "hard to know whether Mr. Wheeler will be truly focused on serving the interests of the American people," given his strong industry ties.

As reporting at Reuters mentions, an opinion piece by Wheeler in 2011 hinted that "he favored a controversial and ultimately shelved merger deal between AT&T and T-Mobile, sparking speculation that he may be open to more consolidation in the wireless industry."

Putting such statements in context for what's ahead at the FCC, the Washington Post reports:

As chairman, Wheeler may also have to weigh in on the fast-changing television landscape, where traditional business models of cable and broadcast networks are being shaken up by online video providers.

Several mergers will also come before the FCC chairman for consideration, including a bidding war between Japan's SoftBank and Dish Network over the nation's third-largest wireless provider, Sprint.

And later this year, the federal appeals court will rule on arguments made by Verizon Wireless and MetroPCS that the FCC doesn't have the ability to regulate broadband Internet providers.

The agency has been under attack by phone giants who have argued that the FCC should not strap new rules to the fast-growing broadband market. But consumer groups have demanded more oversight of Internet service providers to prevent rising cable and wireless bills and a troubling lack of competition.

Acknowledging that Wheeler's choice was roundly endorsed in the elite circles of Washington, Aaron said his group would continue to press the FCC regardless of Wheeler's nomination and likely confirmation.

"The FCC faces significant challenges -- and historic opportunities," said Aaron."Mr. Wheeler has a unique opportunity to address those issues, ranging from Net Neutrality and broadband competition to media diversity and election-ad transparency. He will face challenges from powerful companies to the most basic consumer protections and help determine whether the free and open Internet stays that way. We hope that he will embrace the FCC's mission and fight for policies that foster genuine competition, promote diversity and amplify local voices."


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