Wheeler Ready to Take the Helm

Former National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Tom Wheeler is set to be sworn in as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Nov. 4.

Wheeler's former calling card as lobbyist with both the NCTA and CTIA: The Wireless Association drew some early criticism given the White House's seemingly dim view of the profession — and there was a cautionary word or two last week from clean — government advocate Common Cause on the subject.

But his telecom background, combined with his business acumen, proved to be the right combination for the White House and the Senate. It didn't hurt that he had been a tech/communications advisor to the President, so there will be no long learning curve.

Wheeler comes to the post with some critical issues to resolve, including incentive auctions, the media-ownership rule review mandated by Congress and now four years overdue, how the Internet-protocol transition should be handled, and the long-dormant retransmission-consent docket.

Eliminating the UHF discount (which values UHF stations as worth 50% of VHF stations when computing the federal ownership cap) and loosening restrictions on foreign station ownership have already been teed up, so those are two votes he could get under his belt early on.

Wheeler has said he recognizes the difficulty inherent in the FCC's first two-sided auction. He has likened it to a never-before-tried, Rubik's Cube-like puzzle.  But the success of his chairmanship could hinge on the success of those auctions, which are in his wheelhouse as a former wireless lobbyist who has been pushing for more spectrum.

With the FCC post likely the capper on a long career, Wheeler is not expected to be simply a custodian of the post.  "I think he is going to be an activist, get-things-done chairman who will set deadlines and meet them," says Dick Wiley, chairman of Wiley Rein, himself a former FCC chair.

On retransmission consent, Wheeler has said that while he is OK with broadcasters being compensated, what he isn't OK with is "when consumers are held hostage over corporate disputes." He said he would look at the issue if confirmed. Now that he has been confirmed, cable operators will certainly be looking for him to follow up.

That follow-up is more likely to be a nibble around the edges — better defining good-faith negotiations or including outside arbitration — than a major overhaul, which could face opposition from congressional Republicans.

"Retrans reform is long overdue and we now have a record number of blackouts," said a spokesman for the American Television Alliance, a consortium of cable and satellite operators and others pushing for retrains reform. "We hope that chairman Wheeler and the rest of the commission carefully look at the facts and take action."

Communications attorney Andrew Jay Schwartzman added: "I expect him to be a strong manager and a decisive decision-maker. He has the benefit of a vast knowledge of the technologies and structure of the industries subject to FCC jurisdiction."

One of Wheeler's first jobs will be to hire or retain bureau chiefs.  Among those likely to remain, either in current or new positions, are Wireless Bureau chief Ruth Milkman and Media Bureau chief Bill Lake, both of whom are neck-deep in incentive auction issues. Wheeler is said to possibly have a new Media Bureau chief in mind.

Among those Wheeler is said to be eyeing for possible FCC posts include Diane Cornell, formerly of both CTIA and the FCC, and Phil Verveer, a former FCC Cable Bureau chief — back when there was a Cable Bureau — and more recently deputy assistant secretary of state for international communications and information policy at the State Department.

Two weeks ago it looked like Thanksgiving would be the holiday more likely associated with Wheeler's arrival, maybe even Christmas given the hold on his nomination by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). But Cruz and Wheeler met last week and the Senator indicated he was satisfied that Wheeler was not intent to get the FCC into the middle of the political ad disclosures issue.

After that, the Senate moved swiftly to confirm Wheeler unanimously, as it did the nomination of Michael O'Rielly for the open Republican seat, whose nomination was not going to be approved until the Wheeler hold was lifted, Democrats had made clear. At press time Wheeler was expected to be sworn in Monday, Nov. 4, but he had not returned a call for comment on the details.

Acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn will give up the big chair after having been more active than some had predicted. That includes proposing to eliminate the UHF discount, potentially allowing more foreign ownership of broadcast stations, helping broker a compromise on 700 MHZ interoperability, reducing prison phone rates and taking action to boost rural call completions.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.