FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Sworn In, Announces Inner Circle

By Bryce Baschuk  

Nov. 4 --Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler tapped an experienced group of telecommunications officials Nov. 4 to fill out his front office that commission observers described as a "dream team" of policy professionals.

Wheeler, who announced his staff appointments shortly after being sworn in at the commission, appears poised to act quickly on substantial commission items that have lingered at the agency for years, industry officials told Bloomberg BNA. Mike O'Rielly was also sworn in as the fifth FCC commissioner Nov. 4, but did not immediately announce his staff picks.

“What impresses me most about Wheeler's picks is the depth of experience and knowledge reflected in the team's collective background,” Wiley Rein partner Henry Rivera told Bloomberg BNA. “They are smart, savvy people and all excellent leaders in their own right. Chairman Wheeler has obviously given this matter a great deal of thought and has the personnel he needs to get things moving at the Commission and get them moving fast.”

“It's the kind of team an FCC chair assembles if he intends to hit the ground sprinting fast,” said David Honig, co-founder of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. “No ideologues. Lots of pragmatists. And many have long track records of support for universal service, social justice and civil rights.”

“This staff doesn't have to hit the ground running--they have been running for years,” said Scott Blake Harris, managing partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP. “It is a team that will allow the new chairman to be effective from day one. The entire telecom community is, I think, impressed.”

Emphasis on Wireless

Ruth Milkman, the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau chief, will be Wheeler's chief of staff as Bloomberg BNA previously reported. Wheeler's decision to tap Milkman, who has led the commission's spectrum issues on and off since 2009 reflects the agency's laser focus on releasing more spectrum for commercial mobile broadband use, commission observers said.

One of the greatest challenges Wheeler will face if confirmed is coordinating the FCC's implementation of the broadcast spectrum incentive auctions, slated to take place in 2014. FCC staff are now drafting rules that will enable TV broadcasters to voluntarily release spectrum to auction for wireless commercial broadband, in return for a portion of the auction's proceeds as authorized by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (Pub. L. No. 112-96). The FCC also plans to auction 10 MHz of spectrum in the lower (1915-1920 MHz) and upper (1995-2000 MHz) H block bands on Jan. 22, 2014, and the 2155-2180 MHz band, also known as the AWS-3 band, by February 2015.

Milkman Praised

Blair Levin, the former chief of staff to FCC chairman Reed Hundt, said he was particularly pleased to hear of Milkman's promotion. “Most of the good things I did while there from 1994-1997 started with her advice,” Levin told Bloomberg BNA. “She is everything you want in a public servant and will do a great job for Tom, as she has done in every job she has had.”

Wheeler tapped former State Department official Philip Verveer to be his be senior counselor. Verveer's storied telecommunications career includes his work in the 1970s and 1980s as lead counsel in the government's antitrust suit against AT&T, which led to the breakup of the Bell system. Previously Verveer was chief of the FCC's cable television, broadcast and common carrier bureaus and most recently was deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy.

“It's an A-Team,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior vice president and policy director of Media Access Project. “Some of the most knowledgeable and effective people I know. Convincing Phil Verveer to come on board is a real coup.”

Gigi Sohn Surprise

Wheeler named Public Knowledge President and CEO Gigi Sohn as his special counsel for external affairs. The announcement, which came as a surprise to many in the telecommunications industry, brings a vocal advocate for net neutrality, universal service and consumer rights to the Wheeler commission. Sohn was a notable supporter of President Barack Obama's decision to nominate Wheeler when many public advocacy groups were criticizing Wheeler's lobbying past as president of CTIA-The Wireless Association from 1992 to 2003 and chief executive officer of National Cable and Telecommunications Association from 1979-1984.

Public advocacy groups were generally supportive of Sohn's new assignment: “Gigi brings years of experience and a deep knowledge of the issues to the FCC, and we wish her the best in her new role,” said Craig Aaron, Free Press president and CEO. “We hope her appointment signals a willingness in the Wheeler administration to engage more directly with the public interest community,” Aaron said. “Gigi has proven a stalwart defender of consumer rights and long-standing advocate for the public interest,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation.

Seton Motley, the president of Less Government, said Wheeler's decision to tap Sohn should worry opponents of the FCC's 2010 open Internet order. "Sohn is a very nice person--but she is a leftist activist," Motley told Bloomberg BNA. “Sohn's hire raises concerns about where new Chairman Tom Wheeler is headed on many things, including Title II Internet reclassification--given Sohn's writings on the subject,” said Motley.

Agency observers are eagerly awaiting the forthcoming decision in Verizon v. FCC, a case that could have wide-ranging implications for the government's oversight and regulation of broadband Internet competition (Verizon Communications Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, D.C. Cir., No. 11-1355, oral argument 9/9/13). Some agency observers have suggested that if the three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit strikes down all or part of the FCC's open Internet order Chairman Wheeler may seek to reclassify telecommunications under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. A decision in that case is expected to come this winter or in the early spring.

“On the whole, it looks like a set of appointments with a pretty high degree of competence and experience,” said Free State Foundation President Randolph May. “Whatever the level of experience and competence, though, ultimately the philosophical and policy direction comes from the top, or at least it should. So we all will be watching intently for whatever signals Tom Wheeler sends early on regarding his predilections as to whether to take a more or less regulatory stance. I hope it is the latter.”

Top Waxman Aide Tapped

Inmarsat Vice President for Government Affairs Diane Cornell will be special counsel with responsibility for issues in the international bureau, as well as for FCC process reform. Before joining Inmarsat, Cornell represented wireless carriers as vice president of regulatory policy at CTIA-The Wireless Association. Prior to that Cornell served in various senior positions at the FCC over 13 years including chief of staff of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

Roger Sherman, an aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), will be acting chief of the wireless telecommunications bureau. Sherman knows the wireless world thoroughly, sources said. In 2012 Sherman played a central role in galvanizing support for the spectrum provisions of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. Capitol Hill sources said Sherman also brings practical corporate experience stemming from a dozen years in the telecommunications private sector working as an attorney at Wiley Rein and then at Sprint.

Jon Sallet will be interim director of the technology transitions policy task force and will become acting general counsel sometime this month after General Counsel Sean Lev leaves the agency. Sallet was formerly a partner at O'Melveny & Myers LLP, Jenner & Block and Miller, and Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, and served as Chief Policy Counsel for MCI Telecommunications.

Sallet will, at least temporarily, coordinate the commission's oversight of the Internet Protocol (IP) transition as landline carriers increasingly seek to decommission their copper telephone networks in favor of IP-based networks. In May the commission's technology transitions policy task force proposed to begin real-world trials to understand what policies are needed to protect consumers, promote completion and ensure network resiliency of IP networks. Both items have languished at the FCC since acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn replaced former Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Jon Wilkins, a partner McKinsey & Company, will be “acting managing director” and adviser to the chairman for management.

Daniel Alvarez, an attorney at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, will be a legal adviser to Chairman Wheeler, with responsibility for issues in the wireline competition and public safety and homeland security bureaus.

Renee Gregory, a former chief of staff of the FCC's office of engineering and technology, will be a legal adviser to Chairman Wheeler, with responsibility for issues in the office of engineering and technology and the wireless telecommunications bureau, as well as incentive auction issues.

Maria Kirby, a former legal adviser to the chief of the wireless telecommunications bureau, will be a legal adviser to the chairman, with responsibility for issues in the media, consumer and governmental affairs and enforcement bureaus,

Deborah Ridley, the former executive assistant to the chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission will be confidential assistant to Chairman Wheeler.

Sagar Doshi, a former Google employee, will be special assistant to the chairman.

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

For more information see the FCC's announcement here: http://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-chairman-tom-wheeler-announces-staff-appointments.