Like the Federal Communications Commission chairman before him, Tom Wheeler is a broadband and wireless devotee, which should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with President Obama’s nominee for chairman.
In statements before the Senate commerce committee Tuesday, Wheeler, in a voice made for radio, articulated the administration’s policy that all Americans should have access to broadband.
As focused on broadband as his predecessor Julius Genachowski, Wheeler is likely to carry on the broadband focus of the FCC. His approach and the key to the nation’s broadband future, he told the committee, is “extension, expansion and exploitation.”
But first, he’ll have to orchestrate the most complex auction of wireless spectrum in the history of the world.
Without committing to the specific 2014 tentative deadline set by Genachowski, Wheeler, who called the auction of spectrum voluntarily relinquished by broadcasters a “monumental undertaking,” promised he would try his best. “I will make every effort to meet that schedule,” Wheeler said. “I think this is something that needs to move on an expedited basis.”
For the most part, the three-hour hearing played right into Wheeler’s experiences with wireless and cable policy, allowing him to remind members that he lived through the TV digital transition and represented the wireless industry when it was last allocated spectrum.
A little bit of history caught up with Wheeler over a 2011 blog post when he suggested that extracting merger conditions from AT&T and T-Mobile could serve as a substitute for regulations.
Pressed by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Wheeler called the blog post a “hypothetical musing. If confirmed, I’m guided by the facts and the laws before me.”
Wheeler was asked about several other issues, including retransmission consent and what the FCC could do to stop blackouts and whether the FCC could use its authority to increase political disclosures. Like a good diplomat, Wheeler made few commitments but explained how he would approach the issues, without giving a straight action.
For example, in response to Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) probe about whether or not broadcast shared service agreements should be counted toward media ownership rules, Wheeler said he wasn’t informed enough. “I have long been an advocate of diversity of voices. When the commission looks at this issue, competition, localism and diversity should be the touchstones. I am not informed enough to be explicit on that, but I am going to be,” Wheeler said. “I am specifically trying not to be specific,” he added.
But about the spectrum auction, Wheeler was clear and well informed based on his experience, that it would be his biggest challenge. “There are so many components of the effect of the auction that you have to say it’s a top priority,” Wheeler said.
More broadly, Wheeler also said he wanted to make the agency more nimble. “I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the FCC. It’s important that it makes decisions in a timely manner. There’s nothing worse than businesses not knowing what the rules are,” Wheeler said.
“We need a strong chairman,” summarized chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). “I think you’re going to be confirmed, and I think you’re up to the job.”
How quick the committee votes on Wheeler is unclear. Ranking member Thune indicated that Wheeler’s Senate confirmation should be paired with the GOP nominee, but Rockefeller told reporters that there was no rule it had to be done that way.
Despite a threat by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to hold up Wheeler’s nomination if it looked like Wheeler would try and use the FCC to pass new rules for political advertising disclosures, Rockefeller wasn’t worried. “I think [Wheeler] will get confirmed,” he said.