FCC nominee Wheeler is more wonk than water-carrierJune 19, 2013: 3:37 PM ET
There has been some concern about Tom Wheeler's lobbyist past and his role as a top Obama fundraiser. Is it warranted?
FORTUNE -- "Competition is a power unto itself that must be encouraged. Competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets."
That's a platitude that could easily have been uttered in the late 1990s, when financial markets were being deregulated. Or during the 1970s, when the airlines were being deregulated. But it was uttered on Tuesday, by Tom Wheeler, President Obama's nominee as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Not that the statement is entirely wrong, of course. But it's understandable that some people will be a bit concerned when it's spoken by a guy who, during the same Senate Commerce Committee hearing on his nomination, cited his experience as a lobbyist for some of the industries he'll soon be charged with regulating as a reason he'll be a great chairman. And it's understandable that people will be that much more concerned about the fact that Wheeler was a top bundler for both of Obama's presidential campaigns, raising about $700,000 in total. Obama, responding to questions about the wisdom of putting a former industry lobbyist in the post, opted to laugh off the concerns, calling Wheeler "the Jim Brown or Bo Jackson of telecom."
Wheeler's actual view on regulation seem to be a lot more nuanced than his statement would suggest. At another point in his testimony, he characterized his view of regulation as "protecting competition with appropriate oversight to see that it flourishes." And his lobbying past doesn't seem to be much of an impediment. He has the backing of the telecom heavies, as well as consumer groups including Public Knowledge. It appears as though he'll sail through the nomination process.
Wheeler is right when he argues that there's a difference between being a lobbyist for entrenched interests -- as the cable and wireless industries now are -- and representing those interests pre-entrenchment, as he did. He was president of the National Cable Television Association from 1979 to 1984, and CEO of the CTIA - The Wireless Association from 1992 to 2004. Since then, he's worked as a tech entrepreneur and, most recently, as a venture capitalist with D.C.-based Core Capital Partners.
He also has maintained a blog, "Mobile Musings" that has been pored over for signs of what he might do as chairman. In sum, he appears to have nuanced views on the various issues that he'll be dealing with: the incredibly complicated spectrum auctions slated for next year (which he said Tuesday will be the most important issue he'll be dealing with), net neutrality, and mergers. On the latter issue, some Senators had some questions about a blog post he wrote that seemed to support the proposed $39 billion merger of AT&T (T) and T-Mobile (TMUS) in 2011, but also framed the deal as a way to strengthen regulation through merger contingencies. In response, he called his post "hypothetical speculation" and -- sounding a bit like a Supreme Court nominee -- added: "What a regulator must deal with are realities of a specific case and the law and precedent that deals with merger review."
Despite in some respects looking like an industry apparatchik, Wheeler actually appears to be more of a wonky nerd than anything else. Given the complexity of many of the issues he'll be facing, he might turn out to have been the perfect choice for the job.