Obama Poised to Nominate Wheeler To Replace Genachowski as FCC Chairman

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By Paul Barbagallo  


President Obama is poised to formally nominate Tom Wheeler, managing director of the venture capital firm Core Capital Partners, to be the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, administration officials confirmed to BNA April 30. The announcement is expected May 1.

Wheeler, in addition to being a venture capitalist, is a former head of CTIA-The Wireless Association and the former National Cable Television Association (now the National Cable and Telecommunications Association), two powerful communications industry trade groups. Highly regarded by both industry and public interest advocates, Wheeler was among President Obama's earliest backers and biggest fund-raisers. In 2009, he led the Obama-Biden Transition Project's Agency Review Working Group in charge of transitions for the science, technology, space, and arts agencies. He now serves as chairman of the FCC's Technological Advisory Council.

He has not been a registered lobbyist since 2005, and therefore would not be covered by Obama's “revolving door” executive order signed the day after his Jan. 20, 2009, inauguration.

Earlier this month, Wheeler picked up the endorsement of 11 individuals who are well known in media, technology, and telecommunications policy circles, including several who have served in the Obama administration.

With a second vacancy on the five-member commission, Obama is expected to pair Wheeler's nomination with that of a Republican, to ensure a smoother Senate confirmation process. Typically, FCC commissioners and chairmen have been confirmed more easily as a package of a Democrat and a Republican.

Reaction Mixed From Public Interest Groups

The selection of Wheeler has divided the public interest community. Organizations including the Center for Media Justice, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press Action Fund, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute raised concerns about his record as an industry lobbyist.

One group, Public Knowledge, quickly threw its support behind Wheeler.

“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,” Gigi Sohn, president and chief executive officer of Public Knowledge, said in a statement. “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.”

“Some have expressed concern about Tom's past history as the head of two industry trade associations,” she added. “But his past positions should be seen in light of the times and in the context of his other important experiences and engagement with policy. Viewed as a whole, it is most significant that the President has expressed confidence that Tom will effectively carry out the Administration's communications policy agenda.”

Free Press, which has been more critical of Wheeler's candidacy for the top FCC job, said he now has “the opportunity to prove his critics wrong.”

“The FCC faces significant challenges--and historic opportunities--and Wheeler has a unique opportunity to address those issues, ranging from net neutrality and broadband competition to media diversity and election ad transparency,” Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement April 30. “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.”

Senior FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn is expected to serve as acting chairman pending Wheeler's confirmation.

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