(New throughout with comments from hearing)
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, June 18 Tom Wheeler, President
Barack Obama's pick to lead the Federal Communications
Commission, on Tuesday pledged to champion competition in the
telecommunications industry and said an upcoming auction of
airwaves is the biggest challenge facing the regulator.
Acknowledging his past as a lobbyist, Wheeler told lawmakers
at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on his nomination that at
the FCC, he would advocate for the consumers' interest first:
"My client will be the American public."
Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia
Democrat, said he was certain the Senate would approve Wheeler
to succeed Julius Genachowski as FCC chairman.
The next step for Wheeler will be a vote by the committee
on his nomination. No date has been set.
Asked to cite the single biggest challenge facing the FCC,
Wheeler pointed to the so-called incentive auction, during which
U.S. broadcasters would give up some of their airwaves to be
sold to wireless providers.
Wheeler called the complex auction process a Rubik's Cube,
because the rules that are currently being drafted would have to
take account of the many interests at stake.
The FCC has planned this biggest-ever spectrum auction for
2014, although many in the industry say its complexity could
mean delays. Wheeler pledged to make every effort to meet the
"I understand the concerns," Wheeler said, adding that he
was involved in the FCC's very first spectrum auction, which was
held in 1994. "This isn't my first rodeo."
Wheeler, who was recently a venture capitalist and an Obama
fundraiser and adviser, was a top lobbyist at the National Cable
Television Association in the 1980s and then at the wireless
industry group CTIA until 2004.
"I am an unabashed supporter of competition," he said. "The
role of the FCC has evolved from acting in lieu of competition
to dictate the market, to promoting and protecting competition
with appropriate oversight to see that it flourishes."
Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, pressed
Wheeler about his 2011 blog post in favor of a merger of top
wireless providers AT&T Inc and T-Mobile that was ultimately
blocked because of concerns about competition.
"There is scarcely anything more important that comes before
the commission than merger review," Wheeler said, adding that
the blog was a "hypothetical speculation." He cited three
factors crucial to merger review: deal-specific facts, legal
mandate and precedent.
Addressing a critical issue he will have to tackle as FCC
chair - decades-old rules that limit cross-ownership of
different U.S. media outlets in one market - Wheeler said he
understood the seriousness of the issue and was "specifically
trying not to be specific." "I want to become more informed," he
Asked by Republican senators about attempts by Democratic
lawmakers to get the FCC to press TV stations to disclose
sponsors of political ads - a hot partisan issue - Wheeler said
he needed and planned to study the topic to determine whether
the commission should act, or has the authority to do so.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Ros Krasny and Steve