Obama to tap Tom Wheeler to head FCC

President Obama on Wednesday will nominate Tom Wheeler, a former telecom industry lobbyist, to head the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a White House official confirmed to The Hill.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will be named as acting chairman until the Senate confirms Wheeler, the source said.

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Wheeler would succeed Julius Genachowski, who announced his plans to step down as chairman last month after four years on the job.

"Tom Wheeler is an experienced leader in the communications technology field who shares the President’s commitment to protecting consumers, promoting innovation, enhancing competition and encouraging investment," the White House official said, touting the selection.

The official said Wheeler's "unsurpassed industry experience is matched by his work advising the government on an array of communications and technology policy matters."

Wheeler served as the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the lobbying organization for the cable industry, from 1979 to 1984. Later, he led CTIA, the lobbying arm for cellphone carriers and also worked as a venture capitalist.

He also established the Wireless Foundation, a non-profit that aims to use cellphone service to help the public, such as offering connections in classrooms and providing security for victims of domestic abuse.

He was an early supporter of Obama's first presidential bid and led the working group in charge of science, technology and the arts for Obama's presidential transition team. He has served on a variety of government advisory boards during the Obama administration.

If confirmed as chairman, Wheeler will oversee the FCC's plan to encourage TV stations to give up their airwave licenses for auction to cellphone carriers, which have struggled to keep pace with the booming demand for mobile data.

He may also have to decide whether to attempt to reinstate the agency's net neutrality rules if a federal court sides with Verizon and strikes them down.

Wheeler's candidacy for the job has divided liberals. Groups including the New America Foundation, Free Press and Demand Progress have warned that Wheeler would be too close to the industries he would be in charge of regulating.

"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," Free Press President Craig Aaron said in a statement. "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."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Commerce Committee, which considers all nominations to the FCC, told reporters earlier this month that Wheeler's history as a lobbyist is cause for a "little bit" of concern.

"A lobbyist is a lobbyist," Rockefeller said. "He's been lobbying for some of the things he'd be making decisions on."

But Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, said she believes Wheeler will be an "independent, proactive chairman."

"I also expect that he will carry out the President’s communications policy agenda, which includes strong open Internet requirements, robust broadband competition, affordable broadband access for all Americans, diversity of voices and serious consumer protections, all backed by vigorous agency enforcement," she said in a statement.

Obama's pick disregards the advice of Rockefeller and 36 Senate Democrats who signed a letter backing Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for the chairman's job.

This story was last updated at 4:26 p.m.