* Wheeler promises pro-competitive FCC
* Complex auction of radio airwaves looms
* Public interest advocate tapped for key FCC post
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, Nov 5 A fresh era started at the
U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday with a
30-minute speech to staff by the agency's new chief, who
promised a more current and more nimble regulatory body.
"The industries with which we work are always taking
reasonable risks; I hope we won't shy away from a similar
approach," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in his first public
comments since sworn into office a day earlier.
The new regulator, a Democrat and industry veteran, called
the FCC an "optimism agency" and promised a pro-competition
approach that fosters innovation, helps along the revolutionary
transition of networks but continues to protect consumers.
One of his first orders of business: a "crowdsourced" review
of proposals put forward by FCC commissioners and staff,
lawmakers and other stakeholders aimed at upgrading and
improving outdated regulations or cumbersome procedures.
"As networks change, those charged with the responsibility
of overseeing those networks must also evolve," Wheeler said in
the speech that was later posted as a blog titled "A New Day at
the FCC: Perspectives, Challenges, and Opportunities."
Telecommunications stakeholders - industry and watchdogs
alike - have put a lot of hopes on Wheeler to provide
strong-willed and pragmatic leadership to the five-member
commission that oversees radio, television, cable and wireless
Wheeler is a close ally of President Barack Obama and in the
past lobbied for cable and wireless industries.
Wheeler's predecessor Julius Genachowski has been criticized
for seeking consensus at the expense of completing practical
solutions. Many tasks are now left for the new chair to resolve,
such as the 2010 quadrennial review of rules that restrict who
can own media outlets.
Wheeler, 67, will also have to take on perhaps the most
challenging assignment the agency has faced in decades: a
complex sale of radio airwaves now occupied by TV stations to
wireless service providers, planned for 2015.
After Genachowski left in May, the FCC stayed active and
moved quickly under acting Chair Mignon Clyburn on
consumer-oriented issues such as lowering of prison phone rates.
But progress stalled on writing the rules for the auction, a
critical business opportunity for top U.S. wireless companies
Verizon Communications Inc, AT&T Inc, Sprint Corp
and Deutsche Telecom AG's T-Mobile as well as
the broadcaster community and other companies such as Dish
Network Corp hoping to buy more spectrum.
Wheeler's picks for his top staff reflected that priority,
being heavy with telecom and wireless experts. Ruth Milkman, now
the FCC's wireless bureau chief, will become the new chairman's
chief of staff.
In a surprise move, Wheeler on Monday tapped an outspoken
critic of the agency and longtime public interest advocate Gigi
Sohn to be his special counsel for external affairs.
Sohn, a fixture in the telecom circles and most recently
president of consumer group Public Knowledge, was an early
supporter of Wheeler's nomination.
Sohn is a strong advocate of the so-called net neutrality
principle, which holds that all Internet traffic should be
equal. The issue is now in the hands of a federal court.
Along with Wheeler, the FCC this week welcomed its final
fifth member, a second Republican commissioner and long-time
congressional staffer Michael O'Rielly. Wheeler told staff that
while awaiting confirmation, the two spent time together in the
same jury pool at a District of Columbia court.
In the speech, the new chairman cited several of his own
books - on leadership lessons from the Civil War and his new one
on network revolutions - and promised to promote economic
growth, keep the "historic compact" between networks and users
and to "make networks work for everyone."
The FCC under Wheeler will also face the challenge of how
best to transition the telephone industry away from traditional
analog networks to digital ones, and landlines to wireless,
without leaving any consumers disconnected.
"It is an historical reality that network change produces
tempers that boil, voices that rise, and cries of alarm,"
Wheeler said, adding that he hung up in his office a 1983 poster
that opposed interconnection of two rail lines.
"It is amidst just that sort of upheaval that we have the
responsibility of assuring that innovation and technology
advance - indeed, advance with speed - while at the same time
preserving the basic covenant between networks and those whom
To read Wheeler's speech, see: