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Obama Expected to Name Tom Wheeler as FCC Chairman

Some consumer groups are already expressing concern that Wheeler will have less commitment to Net Neutrality and media ownership issues

President Obama is expected to formally announce today that he will replace departing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski with Tom Wheeler and the reaction is already starting to flow in.

Some consumer groups are already expressing concerns about whether Wheeler, a former president of what was then the National Cable and Television Assn. and later a former CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn., will have the consumer focus that Genachowski had.

On Tuesday, they were especially worried the Wheeler might have less of a commitment to Net Neutrality and media ownership issues than Genachowski.

Meanwhile, some industry groups are praising the nomination.

Wheeler, managing director of Core Capital Partners and the co-founder of SmartBrief, a targeted news service about the media industry, has been often mentioned as most as Genachowski’s successor.

Also read: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Resigning

Active in Obama’s campaign, and a member of the transition team Obama created upon being elected president, Wheeler was a candidate for FCC chairmanship in 2009 before Obama selected Genachowski.

Wheeler was immediately suggested again after Genachowski announced his departure, but Obama has also been lobbied by women’s groups hoping to have a woman as FCC chairman, and by consumer groups seeking someone who would maintain a consumer focus on issues that include antitrust, media ownership rules and Net Neutrality.

While Wheeler represented the cable and cellular industries as president of their associations and indeed was honored in 1995 as one of the 20 most influential individuals in the cable industry’s history, he served both groups in a different era from 1979 to 1984 for the cable industry and then after a break of several years, from 1988 to 2004 at CTIA.

Also read: White House Correspondents Dinner: The Obama & O'Brien Show Draws Laughs, Highlights Gaffes (Video)

People who know Wheeler say the long industry background potentially could work both ways.

“He could surprise some people,” Jeff Silva, an analyst and senior policy director for Global Media Advisors, told The Wrap. “One theory is that because he comes in with some criticism for being a former lobbyist, he might be willing to get the extra step.”

Still, Silva cautioned that an unresolved court challenge of the FCC’s Net Neutrality, could yet add a rewrite of the FCC’s rules to the new FCC’s chairman’s to-do list. The FCC still has to act to review media ownership rules that determine how many stations a single company can own in a market and whether a newspaper owner can buy local TV stations.   

Gigi B. Sohn, president-CEO of consumer group Public Knowledge, predicted he would be a proactive FCC chairman, “who will not allow the FCC to become irrelevant as broadband becomes the dominant mode of communication in this country.”

Sohn said in a statement she would expect Wheeler would carry out the president’s communications policy agenda, including Net Neutrality.

“Some have expressed concern about Tom’s past history as the head of two industry trade associations. But his past positions should be seen in light of the times and in the context of his other important experiences and engagement with policy. 

"Viewed as a whole, it is most significant that the President has expressed confidence that Tom will effectively carry out the Administration's communications policy agenda,” she said.

Craig Aaron, president-CEO of consumer group Free Press was less convinced.

"The Federal Communications Commission needs a strong leader – someone who will use this powerful position to stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest. On paper, Tom Wheeler does not appear to be that person, having headed not one but two major trade associations. But he now has the opportunity to prove his critics wrong, clean up the mess left by his predecessor, and be the public servant we so badly need at the FCC.”

Women’s Media Center co-founders Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, who had sponsored a letter urging President Obama to pick a woman as FCC chairman, said in a statement they were disappointed.

“We regret that President Obama did not recognize the need for a woman leader in this important FCC chair slot, though there were a number of highly qualified women under consideration,” said Fonda.

“Telecommunications policy affects everyone – not just men,” said Morgan. “It’s disheartening to see the cycle of male chairs continuing.”

“The president missed an opportunity to make history and make the FCC more democratic,” said Steinem.

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