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Rough notes: Tom Wheeler, the FCC, and the future of community based radio

Tom Wheeler

Tom Wheeler []

President Obama has nominated telecom biggie Tom Wheeler to chair the Federal Communications Commission, and nervous commentaries are proliferating across the blogosphere. “Uh-oh: AT&T and Comcast are ecstatic about the FCC’s new chairman,” runs the headline over at Ars Technica. The post points the reader to a statement from AT&T Senior Executive Vice President Jim Cicconi:

I’ve known Tom Wheeler for many years, and he is an inspired pick to lead the FCC.  Mr. Wheeler’s combination of high intelligence, broad experience, and in-depth knowledge of the industry may, in fact, make him one of the most qualified people ever named to run the agency.

This praise comes, of course, from a telecommunications giant that pretty much wants to strip IP telephony of any public interest regulations. Ditto declares Comcast, whose merger loving, net neutrality hating Chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts lauded Wheeler’s “vast knowledge” of the telecommunications industry as “invaluable.”

On the other hand, Harold Feld over at Public Knowledge asks us to look past Wheeler’s stint as President of the National Cable Television Association back in the 1980s and his later work with CTIA – The Wireless Association.

“Wheeler has an independent perspective and an open mind,” Feld says, this take on the candidate endorsed by a host of progressives.

Still, Feld urges his readers to ask tough questions and put Wheeler “on notice that, like any Chairman, he needs to  prove himself as a champion of the public interest.” And so I’ll put my biggest fear about Wheeler on the table—that the FCC’s wireless agenda will compel the new boss to turn a blind eye to the concerns of community based radio broadcasters. Let me explain.

Since 2009 the Commission has pledged to do something about the “looming spectrum crisis” for wireless companies. The broadly agreed upon solution has been to gradually coax hundreds of MHz of spectrum from TV broadcasters via “incentive auctions”—a nice way of saying that when TV license owners agree to let some of their licenses sell to the highest bidder, they’ll get a cut of the proceeds.

This is going to be a very difficult process, which could take another decade to complete. There is a lot of potential for things to go wrong, and for broadcasters, who have been very touchy about the idea, to monkey wrench it in various ways. My biggest concern is that in Wheeler’s zeal to complete the transition and placate broadcasters and their trade associations, he’ll side with them on a variety of issues that most big telecom/media policy wonks see as marginal. Thus a Wheeler FCC could turn a continuously uncritical eye towards colleges and universities selling off their radio stations, or relax its vigilance regarding the weeding out of translator applications competing with Low Power FM license bidders. The FCC could also take less interest in the Low Power FM docket generally, leaving important questions like letting stations broadcast at lower power levels like 50 watts go fallow.

There is also the ongoing controversy over HD Radio, an unpopular proprietary digital system being pushed by the big broadcasters. Now they’re putting out trial balloons for a “digital AM sunrise” accompanied by “an analog AM sunset.” HD Radio critic Jon Anderson calls the idea an “audacious gamble to secure HD Radio a strong foundation on which to become the undisputed and permanent standard for all radio broadcasters.” Where is Tom Wheeler going to go on something like this?

The above ruminations are what the headline says: rough [and speculative] notes. But a lot of issues important to us little guys and gals could get caught in the spectrum crossfire. That is what worries me, Wheeler-wise. Time will tell.

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