Tom Wheeler, nicknamed the "Bo Jackson of telecom" when he was nominated by President Obama for Federal Communications Commission chairman, is expected to tell the Senate commerce Tuesday that his business experience will make him a better chairman of the agency. Wheeler's confirmation hearing is set to begin today, and according to his opening statement that was released Monday, he'll also play up his policy experience as heads of both the cable and wireless lobbies.
Wheeler's nomination is likely to be approved by the committee, but it probably won't move as quickly through the Senate until Wheeler's nomination can be paired with the GOP nominee for commissioner, which Obama has yet to name. Despite the lack of a customary pairing, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the committee, wanted to go ahead with the hearing as soon as possible.
When Wheeler comes on board, he'll need to hit the ground running if the agency is to keep to its goal to hold the proposed spectrum auction, probably the most important item on the agency's to-do list.
In Tuesday's hearing, Wheeler is expected to play up both parts of his career and a philosophy curated from both business and politics as giving him an advantage in managing the FCC's agenda.
"I am an unabashed supporter of competition. I believe the role of the FCC has evolved from acting in the absence of competition to dictate the market, to promoting and protection competition with appropriate oversight to see that it flourishes. Competition is a basic American value, yet by itself is not always sufficient to protect other basic American values," Wheeler wrote in his opening statement.
Wheeler's lobbying experience is likely to draw some scrutiny from lawmakers, especially from Rockefeller, who championed his protégé FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for the top spot.
Lawmakers may also seek assurances from Wheeler that he will resign as partner and managing director of Core Capital Partners and divest his financial interests in 78 entities, including companies such as Amazon, Google, CenturyLink, Microsoft, News Corp., Time Warner Cable and Verizon.
GOP leaders are likely to question Wheeler's opinion, outlined in his Mobile Musings blog, that the FCC should use its authority to extract conditions from the failed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile to create "de facto regulatory template for the wireless industry." House commerce chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and communications and technology subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) took issue with Wheeler's view, arguing that the approach "can be misused to affect whole industries." The FCC, Upton and Walden said, "should use its lawful rule making authority as a public and transparent process if it wants to change industrywide behavior and stop using closed door, strong-arm merger conditions."
Another point the GOP will ask Wheeler about is the FCC's attempt to regulate the Internet through the commission's controversial net neutrality rules passed in 2010. Challenged by Verizon in court, a decision is not expected until winter. But since the rules went into effect, there have been no formal complaints, lending credence to GOP arguments that the rules were unnecessary and a blatant grab to expand the FCC's authority.