Obama Taps Ex-Lobbyist Tom Wheeler for FCC Chair, Clyburn for Interim

Mignon Clyburn will be the first woman to chair the FCC, though in an acting chair position until Tom Wheeler's Senate confirmation.

President Barack Obama on May 1 announced plans to nominate Tom Wheeler as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and appointed Commissioner Mignon Clyburn the acting chair. During the transition period, Clyburn will be the first woman to lead the FCC.

Current Chair Julius Genachowski announced March 22 that he planned to step down from the position in the "coming weeks."

Wheeler is a venture capitalist and a former lobbyist for cable and wireless trade groups.

"Tom knows this stuff inside and out," President Obama said, announcing his plans. Driving home that point, he called Wheeler "the Jim Brown of telecom, or the Bo Jackson of telecom."

The Senate will need to confirm Wheeler before he can join the FCC.

Clyburn, responding to her own appointment, said in a statement, "I am committed to continuing the FCC's strong record of promoting competition, investment and advancing the public interest. I am a firm believer that our government can be an effective problem-solver with an important role to play in opening doors of opportunity for all Americans."

She added that she intends to work "hand-in-hand with every bureau and office" to keep the FCC running smoothly and collaborate with members of both houses of Congress "to ensure that we are fulfilling our mission."

Clyburn surely knows well that the job she's stepping into is no easy one. The FCC holds a rein on a wireless industry charging full speed ahead and with no shortage of demands. In an aggressively divided political environment, Genachowski angered players on each side of the aisle as he seemingly worked to, by turns, please both.

In 2014, the FCC will auction off wireless spectrum, a very-hard-to-come-by resource that's the lifeblood of the industry. The auctions will no doubt offer challenges to whomever is in the FCC hot seat, even an industry insider with ties to the carriers.

Consumer interest group Public Knowledge released a statement of congratulations to Clyburn, calling her a "passionate voice for the underserved and underrepresented" who has "taken up matters, like prison phone justice, that don't make headlines, but make our society more just."

The group also urged her to "be more than a mere placeholder for the permanent chair."

"She should take action to implement President Obama's agenda of broadband competition, consumer protection and fairness," said Public Knowledge. "We look forward to her stewardship during a very critical time for the commission."

Genachowski, in his own statement, congratulated Clyburn, calling her a "strong, experienced and thoughtful leader" who has "distinguished herself through her work to modernize universal service and promote competition, and as a champion for closing America's digital divide."

He said he was also pleased with Obama's intention to nominate Wheeler.

"I was pleased to appoint Tom as chairman of the FCC's Technological Advisory Council in 2010, and under his leadership, the TAC has made strong contributions to the FCC's work, including on unleashing spectrum for mobile, removing barriers to private investment and strengthening our cyber-security," said Genachowski. "At this exciting time in this important sector, I can attest to Tom's commitment to harness the power of communications technology to improve people's lives, to drive our global competitiveness and to advance the public interest."

The Telecommunications Industry Association added to the rounds of applause over the appointments.

"He has proven the ability to transcend a broad range of industry perspectives to reach balanced outcomes," the TIA said in a May 1 statement. "Given that one of the most important challenges facing the FCC will be assuring a successful television spectrum incentive auction, Wheeler's breadth of experience makes him especially well-suited to lead the FCC at this time."

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