Tom Wheeler – new FCC Chairman

After a political and administrative process of more than a month Tom Wheeler was finally been nominated by President Obama as the new chairman of the FCC with the full support of Congress. Unlike other regulators around the world the FCC is directly accountable to the American Congress, making it a far more political body than most other regulators.

I have known Tom since 1983. He is an enormously energetic person and has been involved in the ICT industry for most of his working life, holding very senior positions within the American industry.

Currently he is the managing director at the Washington DC venture capital firm, Core Capital Partners, and before that, from 1979 to 1984, he served as president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and as CEO of mobile carrier trade group CTIA from 1992 to 2004.

During all those years we have remained in touch and this connection was further strengthened when Barack Obama became President in 2008. As long as I have known Tom he has played a very active role in the Democratic Party and on one occasion I was invited to attend one of their events, which was quite an experience.

After the Obama win Tom became part of the Transition Team, overseeing the broad scale of technology, science and media. Before the election I had already discussed with Tom the idea that, if Obama were to win, I would be interested in sharing my views on telecoms with him. He took me up on that and put me in contact with Professor Susan Crawford who became the President’s advisor on telecommunications. Together with an elite group of telecoms experts from America and Europe we produced several reports on telecoms infrastructure, structural separation, digital innovation and productivity.

There was also great interest in America in the developments around the Australian NBN and in 2009 I was invited to do a presentation on my views on this at a meeting in the White House. And our reports were used by the people within the FCC who wrote the American National Broadband Plan in 2010. It is interesting to see that many of the suggestions we made appeared in their plan.

The fact that Tom was part of the Transition Team, and the fact that he has shown great interest in different approaches to telecommunications, gives me a positive feeling about his appointment. Obviously an appointment like this is eliciting very strong comment in the USA – there are some who don’t like the fact that Tom has such close links with the industry, while others see that as an advantage.

It is obvious that America is America, and that the political situation and the attitude to private and government investments is rather different from those in Europe and Australia. Theirs will not be an NBN along the lines that developed in Australia, not even the tuned down-version of the Coalition.

As an American Tom is also a very strong proponent of reduced government involvement and strong support for commercial investments. While I do not always agree with his views on telecoms issues I have always been able to have very open discussions with him. My views are sometimes slightly more radical than his, but I have learned that the American way of thinking is indeed different and I can understand and respect that.

Tom’s involvement in the mobile industry also gave him insight into spectrum issues, currently a hot topic in America. In the past he has challenged the broadcasters to become more active in the digital media and more innovative in using their spectrum for, among other things, mobile TV. So we can expect some fireworks there.

Of course, the really big issue in telecoms in the USA, as elsewhere, is the dominance of the vested interests and, particularly in America, their enormous influence in government policies (plutocracy). It will be interesting to see how Tom will handle these tricky issues. He will need all his diplomatic and negotiation skills to navigate a straightforward course through them.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish Tom wisdom and success in his new role.

Paul Budde

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