FCC nominee avoids policy commitments at hearing

Obama and Tom Wheeler

President Obama nominates Tom Wheeler to head the FCC. (White House photo)

President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, testified before a mostly friendly Senate Commerce committee at his confirmation hearing June 18.

Wheeler, whose career includes stints at the top of trade associations for the cable and cellular phone industries, is a longtime supporter of Obama, helped raise money for his first campaign, and assisted in staffing the federal science and technology agencies as part of the post-2008 election transition.

Most of Wheeler's portfolio at the FCC will focus on regulating commercial telecommunications services. The nominee comes to the job at a time of flux in telecommunications technology, with wireline phone companies moving to change the regulatory regime that treats them differently from cable, mobile and satellite companies that supply many of the same services. Committee chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.) said he expects Wheeler to be confirmed easily, but also wants to ensure that the agency sticks to its goals of protecting consumers and encouraging competition in the private sector.

"Let me be clear, even as communications networks evolve and technology advances, the FCC's mission does not. The rules and regulations we have in place now may not be the rules we need for the future, but that certainly does not mean we should not have any, as so many in the industry seem to advocate," Rockefeller said.

Wheeler avoided committing to specific policies, saying that over the course of his career, he has seen policy act as both "a boon to growth" and "a brake on innovation."

At the FCC, Wheeler will face the knotty challenge of implementing a planned reverse auction of radio spectrum, mandated by Congress, designed to move spectrum from television broadcasters to companies that want to use the spectrum to deliver mobile broadband services. "My intention is to move expeditiously to make spectrum available," Wheeler said under questioning. He likened the complexity of the auction to a Rubik's Cube, having to provide an incentive structure for broadcasters to induce them to part with spectrum, while making enough money on the auction side to fund FirstNet, the planned nationwide broadband public safety communications system.

The spectrum auction also has implications for other government agencies: If the effort does not yield enough spectrum to move the needle on the Obama administration's goal of freeing up 500 MHz for commercial mobile broadband use, the government may look to agencies to relinquish more of their spectrum holdings. Late last week, the administration alerted agencies to take steps to find ways to share some of their spectrum holdings with commercial users.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is FCW's senior staff writer, and covers Congress, health IT and governmentwide IT policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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