Obama to nominate Tom Wheeler as FCC chairman: official

WASHINGTON Tue Apr 30, 2013 7:38pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles before he speaks to the media in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, April 30, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles before he speaks to the media in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, April 30, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will nominate venture capitalist and former wireless and cable lobbyist Tom Wheeler on Wednesday to head the Federal Communications Commission, according to a White House official.

After decades in and around Washington telecom circles, Wheeler would take the reins of the FCC as the industry prepares for a major reshuffling of ownership of radio airwaves and as the agency tries to catch up to rapidly changing technology.

He has the rare support of both industry groups and a number of consumer advocates.

Wheeler has served as an informal adviser to Obama in recent years and has been a big fundraiser for his political campaigns. He went into the venture investing business after years at the helm of the National Cable Television Association and then the wireless industry group CTIA.

Wheeler did not respond to a request for comment. He will succeed current FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who plans to leave for the Aspen Institute think tank in coming weeks.

"Tom Wheeler is an experienced leader in the communications technology field who shares the president's commitment to protecting consumers, promoting innovation, enhancing competition and encouraging investment," the White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday in disclosing Wheeler's nomination.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, will take over as acting chairwoman until the Senate confirms the nomination, the official said. She will preside over a commission that includes one other Democrat and one Republican because Obama has yet to fill another open Republican seat on the usually five-member commission.

Wheeler's lobbying past has concerned some public interest groups as well as Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat who wanted his former staffer and now junior FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to get the post.

'FAVORS THE LITTLE GUY'

But overall, consumer advocates have embraced Wheeler's candidacy, noting that he joined both trade groups while the industries they represented were young and competing against established technologies.

"He's interested in competition and promoting new technologies," said Andrew Schwartzman, a prominent Washington public interest advocate, who said Wheeler understands the need to challenge market leaders. "His mind-set is of somebody who favors the little guy."

Schwartzman was one of several consumer advocates who earlier this month backed Wheeler in a letter to Obama.

A notable co-signer was Susan Crawford, a telecommunications policy expert who had been a favorite of consumer groups to lead the FCC. Crawford posted a tweet on Tuesday that described Wheeler as "a good man" with "experience and gravitas."

At the same time, many in the telecommunications industry have touted Wheeler's private-sector experience, noting that he founded and invested in many tech-based companies and expressing hope that his lobbying experience will make him more sympathetic to letting markets, not the government, set the industry's pace.

In a 2011 blog, Wheeler hinted that he favored a controversial and ultimately shelved merger deal between AT&T and T-Mobile, sparking speculation that he may be open to more consolidation in the wireless industry.

However, the blog post also suggested the FCC would have been able to levy heavier regulation over the newly merged company because of monopoly concerns.

On Tuesday, few industry groups or companies commented on Wheeler's upcoming nomination before it was formally announced.

The National Association of Broadcasters, whose relationship with the FCC has cooled as Genachowski shifted the agency's focus to expanding broadband access, simply said Wheeler had "the experience and temperament to serve the agency with distinction.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Alina Selyukh; Editing by Sandra Maler, Carol Bishopric and Eric Beech)

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