Skip to main content

Wheeler to Be FCC's Big Wheel

President Obama made it official last week: Tom Wheeler is his pick for Federal Communications Commission chairman.

Wheeler, currently a partner in venture capital firm Core Capital Partners, is a former lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries, with a particular focus in recent years on wireless.

That’s not the resume normally associated with a Democratic pick for FCC chairman. Plus, the White House was under pressure to name a woman, or a minority, to the post, and it has made no secret of its disdain for lobbyists in government.

But Wheeler was a top advisor to President Obama during his transition process back in 2008-09, and he helped raise money from the tech sector while taking a break from putting money into the tech sector as a venture capitalist.

Wheeler also continues the trend of an executive with real-world business experience in the top post at the FCC. Outgoing FCC chief Julius Genachowski proved to be a moderate whose push for broadband build-out resulted in a number of moves meant to make it easier for broadband providers to do business.

Wheeler can be expected to continue that trend.

In announcing the nomination, the president said Wheeler knows the industry “inside and out” and, tapping an NFL-superstar metaphor, likened him to a Jim Brown or Bo Jackson of telecom. Obama also called Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who was named interim chairman, an “incredible asset.”

Clyburn could take the opportunity to move on loosening foreign ownership rules, which could boost media diversity. Although the Women’s Media Center last week voiced their concerns about the Wheeler choice and there never having been a female chair, Clyburn will be the first woman to hold the post, even if it is only for a few months.

Typically Big Agenda

It will likely be Wheeler’s FCC that implements spectrum auctions, finally weighs in on media ownership, oversees the transition to IP delivery and decides what regulations to apply, or not to apply, to IPdelivered voice and video.

Wheeler is coming in to the job with mixed reaction from public interest groups, given his experience advocating for big cable and wireless companies. But Wheeler fits the White House bill of mixing tech smarts with business acumen. His Core Capital bio credits him with starting “the first company to offer high-speed data to the home and the first digital video delivery service.”

Wheeler has had plenty to say about the communications business during his tenure at Core Capital, weighing in periodically on his blog. The blog postings stopped at the end of last year, about the same time Wheeler’s name started surfacing as a candidate to replace Genachowski.

National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith welcomed Wheeler’s appointment. “He has the experience and temperament to serve the agency with distinction, and we look forward to working with him,” Smith said in a statement.

But broadcasters may have a bone or two to pick with Wheeler. In his blog (broadcastingcable/com/May6), he has pushed broadcasters to get moving with mobile DTV if they want to establish their value in the digital world. Back in 2009, Wheeler opined in the blog about what he called broadcasters’ “jihad” against spectrum auctions.

But Wheeler has also said that broadcasting is “without a doubt…the most efficient means of delivering common content to a large audience,” and something that is just as important in a digital world as it was in an analog one.

Broadcasters have recently been trying to deliver on that mobile DTV promise, announcing the ramp-up of the service in new markets and making it one of the focal points of the recent NAB convention in Las Vegas.

Wheeler, in his free-wheeling Core Capital blog, has sided with those who oppose the Stop Online Privacy Act, pushed broadcasters to either put up their spectrum for auction or make a business out of mobile DTV and has talked up a free and open Internet— all positions that should endear him to media public interest groups.

All that said, it could be several months before Wheeler is actually installed in the job. “Congress isn’t around in the summer a lot of the time,” suggested a former FCC official. “Some people think it will be fall before he gets in.” Four years ago, it took three months between Genachowski’s appointment and when he was actually installed.

Since Republican FCC commissioner Robert McDowell is also leaving the agency, a Republican will also have to be picked to pair with Wheeler during the consideration process. That nominee will have to be vetted— FBI background check and all.

Pairing the nominees is not required, but Republicans are unlikely to give up the leverage of approving Wheeler without having their own choice in hand. Michael O’Reilly, a top staffer with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), continues to be the name most often raised for McDowell’s seat, but a Republican source said that it is not yet a done deal.

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton