FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler leans on candor to get his message across

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For federal regulators, words really matter. An adjective too bold, a verb misconjugated or a particle dropped can ripple across the business world and send stock markets into chaos. That’s why leaders of government agencies so rarely speak in public -- and generally do so with great care. Not Tom Wheeler, the dauntless and plain-spoken chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who has displayed a rare joy for gab.

“I’m not sitting here sucking eggs,” Chairman Wheeler said at his first public meeting in November, a warning shot of what was to come. “I’m looking seriously at these issues.”

Such candor has defied early assumptions about President Barack Obama’s FCC pick as a lame duck. The 68-year-old has eagerly grasped a national megaphone on the defining -- and the utterly arcane -- telecommunications policy issues of the day.

In coming months, he faces the biggest test of his promise to put consumers first, deciding whether to approve the merger of two of corporate America’s least-popular companies: cable titans Comcast and Time Warner Cable. It will be hard to please all sides with bigger and more controversial decisions ahead:

  • He will make the call on Comcast’s $45 billion bid for Time Warner Cable, a deal that would create the first national cable company and a broadband Internet titan with 40 percent of the market share.
  • His net neutrality proposal rankled consumer advocates, who say it could allow the richest Web companies to buy better access to users.
  • He will launch the biggest sale of television airwaves in years, an auction that could dramatically shrink local broadcasting and determine the dominant providers of mobile services for years to come.

His folksy idioms and direct Midwestern sensibility have won many friends in Congress, the FCC and at the top levels of corporate America. And Chairman Wheeler is unapologetic about the decades he spent leading the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the CTIA wireless group and then as a venture capitalist with telecom, Internet and broadcast industry investments. Indeed, as he sees it, his lobbying skills are key to his management of the FCC -- a notion that might make others cringe. “This is a job that I’ve been training for my entire professional life,” Chairman Wheeler said.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler leans on candor to get his message across