CES: FCC Chairman Wheeler Sees Great Opportunities For Broadcasters

In a congenial interview with Consumer Electronics president and CEO Gary Shapiro at the International CES in Las Vegas Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler stressed his commitment to innovation and competition and laid out some of his key priorities.

Those priorities included pushing forward the transition to IP networks; E-Rate and 21st century educational initiatives; spectrum auctions; and dealing with disability issues.

On the issue of spectrum auctions, Wheeler argued that "there never has been a time for greater opportunity for America's broadcasters," adding that he was a "strong believer in the great national service broadcasters provide."

He argued that the spectrum auctions provided broadcasters with an opportunity to reinvent themselves as digital players by sharing spectrum and using the savings in capital and operating expenses to invest in new digital services. The FCC is trying to get broadcasters to give up as much as 120 MHz of spectrum to auction for wireless broadband.

"I don't think there has ever been a more risk-free opportunity for incumbents to morph into new entities, and I hope broadcasters will begin to see those opportunities," he said.

The National Association of Broadcasters generally argues that broadcasters are better off keeping all of their spectrum and using it to deliver advanced services, but there is a group of at least 70 stations that have expressed interest in giving up spectrum at the right price.

Wheeler called the U.S. the leader in LTE and attributed that status to the fact that the U.S. government had not tried to impose a path to high speed wireless networks on the private sectors. "We are pro-innovation and pro-competition and we want to protect both," he said.

He generally declined to be drawn into controversial subjects, refusing to say whether the FCC should intervene in carriage disputes, and joked with Shapiro about his age. "This isn't my first rodeo," Wheeler said, referring to his involvement in earlier auctions.

Wheeler welcomed recent pronouncements by some members of Congress that they might consider rewriting the 1996 Telecommunications Act, saying it would produce a helpful discussion on new digital landscape. One of Wheeler's first initiatives as chairman was to commission a report on potential regulatory reforms.

Wheeler, an amateur historian who has written about Lincoln's use of communications--the telegraph--discussed some historical developments in technology and, not surprisingly, called Lincoln his favorite president, noting that he was the only president to have a patent.

Wheeler is the author of two books including the Lincoln book, and was working on a third covering the history of networks when nominated to the FCC.

—John Eggerton contributed to this report.