Wheeler Confirmed to FCC as Industry Readies for Auction

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2013-10-30

Wheeler Confirmed to FCC as Industry Readies for Auction

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Tom Wheeler as the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Michael O'Rielly as its newest commissioner.

Wheeler takes the place of Julius Genachowski, who announced his intended departure in March, while O'Rielly, a Republican, takes the place of Robert M. McDowell, who announced the same month his own plans for time off, after seven years of "serving the American people."

The commission consists of two Republican and two Democrat commissioners and a presidential-appointee chairperson.

"I have no doubt that [Wheeler] will be an outstanding FCC Chairman," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who rose to the position of acting chair during the five months between Genachowski's departure and the Senate dotting its i's. "Tom brings a tremendous depth of experience, talent and knowledge that will serve him well as the leader of this critically important agency."

President Obama nominated Wheeler in May, calling him the "Bo Jackson of telecom" and the "only member of both the cable television and wireless industry halls of fame."

Wheeler was "in charge of the group that advises the FCC on the latest technology issues," the president continued. "He's helped give American consumers more choices and better products. So Tom knows this stuff inside and out."

Wheeler takes the position as all eyes in the wireless industry are on the FCC, which has said it will host a wireless spectrum auction in 2014.

T-Mobile and Sprint have been aggressively lobbying the FCC to put spectrum purchase limits in place, so that the massive pocketbooks of Verizon and AT&T don't prevent all others from benefiting from the rare event, while Verizon and AT&T have presented research and written letters insisting, among other points, that limits could lessen the revenue that the auction brings in.

While income wouldn't normally be an acceptable high priority for the FCC, an agenda of the auction is to raise $7 billion for the construction of a nationwide wireless emergency communications network.

The carriers are also concerned about whether they'll have equal opportunities to bid on sub-1GHz spectrum bands (the lower bands offer better in-building cellular coverage), along with a host of other issues that will need to be addressed.

While Clyburn was far from a seat-warmer during her five-month stint, the decisions around the auction are major ones that have been waiting for the new chairman.

That is not to say they'll be settled soon.

Wheeler Confirmed to FCC as Industry Readies for Auction

"This isn't something that's going to happen in the first couple weeks," Harold Feld, senior vice president of public advocacy group Public Knowledge, told eWEEK. "The expectation is that staff has been working on this, and Wheeler has been keeping up to date—it's not like he's starting from scratch. But they're also not his decisions alone. He has to get a majority of the commissioners to agree to his package, and there are a lot of stakeholders with interests."

Feld went on to say that multiple items will need to be addressed—as the spectrum cap matter is just a small piece of it—and each presents very complicated issues. On top of that, there's the matter of the auction itself and how the bidding will work.

"It's the first time we've done something like this—it's the first time anyone in the world has done something like this—so it's not like you take the usual rules and tweak them. You have to make up something new. ... It's important to appreciate the complication here," said Feld.

A very best-case scenario, he estimated, is that an order—a rough draft—will be circulating by January 2014.

While the spectrum cap issue has been split along party lines, much else about the auctions isn't.

"It's really hard to know where the commissioners will split," said Feld.

When asked his feelings about Wheeler, Feld offered two points.

"I don't know him personally, but people whose opinions I value, not just as people but as public advocates, say, 'Tom Wheeler's going to be his own guy, not an industry stooge.' So I believe that."

His second point: Wheeler won't be worried about getting on the bad side of a company or carrier.

"He's already made his pile, and his next stop is retirement," said Feld, "as opposed to being worried about the revolving door."

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