Tom Wheeler is the Right Person to Head FCC

By Peter Bernstein May 01, 2013

All of the rumors about who President Obama will nominate as the next head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have come to an end. He is expected to formally unveil venture capitalist and former cable TV and wireless trade association head Tom Wheeler as his nominee to replace FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

In the coming days, a lot of words are going to be written about Wheeler’s politics and positions on the long list of significant issues he will face if confirmed as the new FCC head. This is, after all, a highly visible post and the confirmation process will take place in what has become a toxic political environment in Washington, D.C. Hence, those with axes to grind and points they feel obligated to score are likely to pull out the sharp knives. 

It is my sincere hope that this nomination does not go off the rails because of political pettiness. As I have written in the past concerning the process for replacing Chairman Genachowski, because there is an open Republican seat on the FCC to be filled, from a purely political standpoint having a twofer provides U.S. senators a path to make the confirmation process more orderly than would be the case if there were not the horse trading that is likely to go on here.

Why Tom Wheeler

Much of what you will read in the coming days is going to concern Wheeler’s positions on industry issues. He has never shied away from expressing them over the years. This includes his personal blog and also his stint as a contributor to TechZone360 in years past. 

As part of the nomination process, finding out a nominee’s views is an essential part of the drill. The reasons I think he is the right person at this moment in time are not political. They are personal.

In the name of full disclosure, Tom Wheeler (henceforth to be just Tom in this posting) and I are colleagues who became friends back in 1976. As a young lobbyist for the nascent competitive telecom equipment industry, I met Tom when he was head of the cable industry trade association. We spent countless hours tackling the challenges of creating the foundation for a competitive communications landscape we now all take for granted. Tom is not only one of the smartest and wisest people I know, he was an incredible role model and mentor. I learned the importance, value and tools of the trade for being an effective advocate. I also tried to emulate his ability to respect those with differing opinions and forge consensus where it seemed almost impossible. These are traits that in the challenging times ahead will be invaluable.

As importantly, and the reason if confirmed I believe he will be an outstanding FCC chairman, is that he has an intense passion concerning the need for the U.S. to have the most advanced communications infrastructure possible as an engine for economic vitality. Despite what has already been implied by some that he is “too cozy” with industry, Tom is a firm believer in open and fair competition as the path forward to ensure we have the infrastructure we so desperately need. This is tempered by the belief that government has a role in making sure there is a level playing field, so that innovation is nurtured not squelched. 

The fact of the matter is that we are truly at a tipping point in the history of the converging communications industries. A deft hand at the helm is required.  It is why I am amazed by those who believe that having a deep understanding of the diverse business interests that comprise the communications industry makes Tom “look good on paper,” but who are still reserving judgment. 

The litany of challenges the FCC will face in the next few years is daunting to say the least. It covers a broad range, starting with how to overcome the digital divides -- rural versus urban as well as those based on income. It also includes the proper allocation of radio spectrum to enable incumbents to expand and new players to compete in what will be a massive industry restructuring. This restructuring will consider M&A activities, net neutrality, whether to regulate social media, how to deal with privacy and security threats, what to do about the death of the PSTN and what role governments at all levels should have in overseeing the transition to a VoIP/data-centric world. And that is just a sample.    

Reality is that all of the things that have been simmering for years are now boiling. It is a public policy perfect storm. The window for resolution of many if not most of these issues is closing fast. I have said on numerous occasions that what happens in the next 12-18 months is going to have a serious impact on how we all consume communications services and who provides them for years to come. It may be problematic to predict winners and losers, but what the FCC does is going to play a major role.

We are at a watershed moment. It demands that those who have the mandate to make decisions about the future have the requisite skills and character. Industry and political wisdom are paramount in evaluating the issues and acting in a way that is good for the interests of consumers, while balancing the needs of the business community with an eye on creating a robust competitive environment.

Tom’s knowledge combined with his personal decency, passions and political skills are why he is the right person at the right time to be the FCC chairman. He fully appreciates the responsibilities and importance of being chairman and will be an outstanding one, and he clearly relishes the opportunity to serve. It may be impolitic to say, but it is my wish that the politics of the confirmation process conclude with a speedy, minimally contentious and successful outcome.

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