President Barack Obama nominated former wireless lobbyist Tom Wheeler to chair the Federal Communications Commission Wednesday, earning praise from telecom industry groups and raising alarms with consumer advocates on both sides of the political spectrum.
Wheeler, one of Obama’s top campaign bundlers, spent decades at the helm of the two top industry trade groups for the cable and wireless industries before joining a technology investment firm in 2005.
AT&T called Wheeler’s nomination an “inspired pick” in a statement.
“I’ve known Tom Wheeler for many years,” said AT&T senior executive vice president Jim Cicconi. “Mr. Wheeler’s combination of high intelligence, broad experience, and in-depth knowledge of the industry may, in fact, make him one of the most qualified people ever named to run the agency.”
Bruce Kushnick, a longtime telecom activist on consumer advocacy issues, said Wheeler’s history of working for telecom industry lobbies “doesn’t bode well for someone who’s going to care about the public interest.”
“You can’t tell me he doesn’t have relationships with his old clients,” said Kushnick.
Kushnick’s organization New Networks filed a petition with the FCC in August asking for an investigation into the commission’s Technical Advisory Council, which Wheeler chaired. New Networks alleged it had been stacked with members who had direct ties to corporations with policy interests before the board.
“Regulatory capture is something we’re going to demand the Senate examine immediately,” said Kushnick.
The CTIA, the wireless lobbying group that Wheeler led from 1992 to 2004, applauded the nominee.
"On behalf of the wireless industry, we congratulate Tom on today's announcement,” said the CTIA in a public statement. “We look forward to working with Tom once he completes the Senate confirmation process, on the breadth of spectrum and other wireless telecom matters, which are pending at the commission and critical to the maintenance of our position as global leader in mobile communications."
Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts said Wheeler’s “vast knowledge of the communications industry, as well as his proven leadership, will be invaluable as the commission sets its course for our nation’s digital future. We applaud President Obama's nomination and we look forward to working with the commission under Tom's leadership.”
Obama praised Wheeler as the “Bo Jackson of telecom,” noting he is the only member of “both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame.”
The CTIA reported over $16 million in lobbying expenses during the last four years of Wheeler’s tenure. The CTIA supports federal restrictions on cell phone “unlocking”—altering a phone you own so it can work on any carrier.
Before joining the CTIA, Wheeler was the head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the chief trade association for the cable TV industry, from 1979 to 1984. The NCTA spent nearly $19 million lobbying in 2012, focusing on FCC-related policies, including broadband and spectrum issues.
White House spokesman Jay Carney downplayed Wheeler’s past lobbying during the White House press briefing on Wednesday, noting he left the CTIA in 2004.
"He hasn't worked for the wireless industry in nearly a decade; three decades in the cable industry," said Carney.
The Parents Television Council, an organization that advocates for broadcast decency laws, raised concerns about Wheeler’s appointment.
“When you have an appointment coming from someone who has such deep ties to industry, especially industries that have in the past abused their market power, you’re concerned right off the bat whether he’s going to be keeping in mind the best interests of the American people, especially children and families,” said PTC president Tim Winter.
Winter said Wheeler “has not stated a formal opinion yet on our most important issues, which are enforcement of existing broadcast decency law and allowing the subscribers to cable and satellite to pick and choose which networks they want to pay for as opposed to being forced to pay for the whole bundle.”
Winter said PTC would be reaching out to Wheeler and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to demand answers.
“We’ll certainly reach out to [Wheeler] directly, if we can. But we’ll also make sure those who sit on the commerce committee are aware of the issue and will ask him directly.”
Wheeler did not respond to a request for comment.
Technology groups and open Internet advocates criticized Wheeler’s lobbying ties in interviews with the Washington Free Beacon last week.
“We have concerns about someone with a background in lobbying for the very industries that they are supposed to be regulating at the FCC, and how that will impact their decision-making at the commission,” said Benjamin Lennett, policy director for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation.
Other Internet freedom groups have been more open to the appointment. Public Knowledge previously said it could overlook its concerns about Wheeler if he were nominated.
“Tom looks like someone we can definitely work with,” said Bartees Cox, a communications associate at Public Knowledge.
“Of course, there are concerns,” he added. “[Wheeler] does have ties with the CTIA, but I feel like every person that’s in a position of power has a tie with somebody like the CTIA.”
Wheeler may have to overcome some speedbumps during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.) has also questioned Wheeler’s industry ties.
“A lobbyist is a lobbyist,” Rockefeller told the Hill earlier this month. “He’s been lobbying for some of the things he’d be making decisions on.” Rockefeller joined 36 other Democrats last month in calling on Obama to appoint Jessica Rosenworcel as FCC chair.
Rockefeller did not respond to requests for comment.