Vowing ‘new day,’ U.S. telecom chief kicks off review of FCC

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By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three days into his job as the top U.S. telecommunications regulator, Tom Wheeler does not want to talk specifics about the Federal Communications Commission’s agenda but has a mantra that he repeats over and over:

“I am an unabashed supporter of competition.”

The Democrat now at the helm of the agency stressed that at his Senate confirmation hearing, and again on Wednesday when asked about his vision for the agency’s role in a rapidly evolving telecommunications industry.

“In many instances competition can be an unnatural act,” Wheeler told Reuters. “Competition is not something that happens by itself. There are forces that align, for good reason, to try and limit competition and so therefore there is a crucially important role for the commission to both promote and protect competition.”

Wheeler, a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist who recently served as an adviser to President Barack Obama, was sworn in on Monday, and a day later addressed the agency’s staff with a promise of a more nimble, more current and less risk-averse regulatory body.

The agency under Wheeler, 67, will take on a number of issues that will have a profound impact on the industries it oversees, particularly the complex sale of airwaves now owned by TV stations to the wireless providers.

The FCC is now drafting the rules for that auction, planned for 2015. Battle lines are being drawn between smaller providers, led by Sprint Corp and Deutsche Telecom AG’s T-Mobile, and the two biggest providers Verizon Communications Inc and AT&T Inc.

Smaller companies argue that the FCC’s rules should put a cap on how much spectrum AT&T and Verizon should be allowed to buy, to protect competition. The bigger providers disagree.

“I’m not going to get specific today but an important part of spectrum policy is ensuring the sufficiency of spectrum to deliver competitive services and the ability of wireless networks to be competitive amongst themselves,” Wheeler said when asked about his views on competition in the auction.

Asked what exactly he hoped to accomplish before the end of the year on writing the rules for the auction, Wheeler said:

“I don’t know the answer to that,” adding with a laugh, “It’s my third day on the job. I’m still filling out my insurance forms.”

In his remarks on Tuesday, Wheeler outlined three broad goals for his policy: promote economic growth, keep the “historic compact” between networks and users and “make networks work for everyone.”

Similarly, in discussing the “network compact” on Wednesday, Wheeler pointed to network access as key.

Some observers parse that view as a sign that Wheeler would fight for the FCC rules that try to protect network neutrality, a principle that all Internet traffic should be equal.

A federal court is now weighing whether the FCC should be able to enforce whether companies can choose what traffic goes through the networks that belong to them.

Wheeler said it was “a mistake” to read into his strong position on network access any indication of what steps he would take if the court rules against the FCC.

“I’m going to take a look at what the court does and act accordingly,” he told Reuters.

Wheeler on Tuesday launched a review of proposals on the FCC’s regulations and procedures, a promise of better efficiency similar to one given by his predecessor Julius Genachowski, who later was criticized for tackling few controversial issues.

“I don’t think the question is how is my approach different from Julius” or other former chairs, Wheeler said. “I think the issue is that I’ve laid out what the goals are and I intend to manage to those. And I’ve been a manager most of my life.”

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Ros Krasny and Lisa Shumaker)