FCC Chairman Defends Lobbying Past, Seeks to Advocate for American Public

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Nov. 8 --Tom Wheeler, the nation's new chief regulator of the telecommunications marketplace, defended his work as a former lobbyist for the wireless and cable industries, in an interview with Bloomberg BNA Nov. 8.

“It was a long time ago,” Wheeler told Bloomberg BNA during his first week as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. “It was 30 years ago for cable and a decade ago for wireless and a lot has changed since then,” he said.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, (D-W.Va.) and some consumer advocates had previously criticized Wheeler's work as president of CTIA-The Wireless Association from 1992 to 2004 and as chief executive officer of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association from 1979 to 1984.

“I'm proud of the time I was in those industries and I hope I was a good advocate for my client,” said Wheeler. “Today my client is the American public and I want to be the best possible advocate they can have.”

Wheeler, who was sworn in as FCC chairman on Nov. 4, will lead the agency's work on several proceedings that will have a tremendous impact on the companies that own the spectrum, copper and broadband networks that compose the nation's telecommunications infrastructure. During Wheeler's term, the commission plans to hold at least three auctions to sell spectrum for commercial mobile broadband use, oversee the transition from copper telephone lines to Internet protocol (IP) networks, expand high-speed broadband Internet access to schools, and potentially address the commission's authority to regulate broadband competition, among other issues.

Wheeler said the FCC must “move with all due dispatch” to craft rules that will enable TV broadcasters to voluntarily release spectrum to auction for wireless commercial broadband, in return for a portion of the auction proceeds as authorized by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (Pub. L. No. 112-96). Wheeler declined to say whether he thought 2014 was an achievable timeline to conduct the broadcast incentive auction as both his predecessors, former acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn and former Chairman Julius Genachowski, had laid out. The billions of dollars in proceeds from the auction will help fund the build-out of FirstNet, a nationwide broadband network for first responders, and help pay down the national debt.

“Today my client is the American public and I want to be the best possible advocate they can have.”


FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Wheeler declined to comment on specific issues before the commission but broadly outlined his perspective on how the FCC can best encourage the modernization of the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure. “If you are moving from an analog to a digital world, whether it be in broadcasting or in wireline or in wireless, the success of our time together--and I mean that in the broader sense of all the commissioners here--will be how we prepare today by dealing with those changes for tomorrow,” he said.

Wheeler said FCC actions should seek to encourage competition, protect the “network compact” and ensure networks are operating efficiently. “Competition works better than even the smartest guys at the FCC, sitting down and saying, 'Here's how we want to micromanage a market,' ” Wheeler told Bloomberg BNA.

“If the service providers in that space want less regulation, there is a simple answer and that is more competition.”  

“In a monopoly era that may have made sense. We are no longer in a monopoly era, nor are we in a, in many instances, a fully competitive era,” he said. “If the service providers in that space want less regulation, there is a simple answer and that is more competition.”

New Tech, Same Values

The commission will seek to preserve what Wheeler described as the “network compact” between providers and consumers. “There has always been a set of values that existed between the networks and those who use them,” said Wheeler. “And new network technologies may change the specifics of how the networks operate but they don't change the values.”

The FCC will also aim to ensure the efficiency and best possible use of the networks that connect Americans, Wheeler said. “It is what networks enable that makes them important,” he said. “How can networks deliver high-speed services to schools so that we can have 21st century education? How do networks expand the opportunities for the disabled to address some of their challenges? How do we apply networks to the issues of the day?” he asked. “That will begin the sorting process that will lead to decisions.”

Modernize the FCC

Wheeler said he plans to modernize the FCC's management structure and encourage more interconnected exchanges across bureaus. “I'm anxious to broaden the involvement to see how we deal--in an agency that has historically been siloed into specific categories--how we can deal on a distributed basis,” he said.

One of Wheeler's first directives as chairman was to ask Diane Cornell, a former FCC senior adviser, to evaluate what procedural changes could improve the agency's work and submit a report on her findings in January. “In 60 days, Diane is going to have a report with thoughts and suggestions on procedures to which everybody's input will be sought and incorporated,” Wheeler told FCC staff members Nov. 5. “We want to get everybody's ideas about the commission, process, procedures, etc. and we will bring 21st century techniques to our internal processes,” Wheeler said.

In his first commission speech, Wheeler told his staff that they should think of themselves as working for the “federal optimism agency.”

“The 21st century flows through us and we are the ones who get to deal with this connective tissue that is to define what our world is going to be like,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

To watch Wheeler's speech click here: http://www.fcc.gov/events/video-chairman-tom-wheelers-first-all-hands-meeting-fcc-staff.

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