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Obama pick for top U.S. telecom regulator to face Senate panel

U.S. President Barack Obama (unseen) announces venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to head the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) at the Stat
U.S. President Barack Obama (unseen) announces venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to head the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) at the Stat

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's choice for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is expected to face questions about his past work within the telecommunications industry at a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

The Senate Commerce Committee panel will be the first public address by Tom Wheeler, an industry veteran, since he was tapped in May to succeed Julius Genachowski.

Lawmakers and public interest groups have said they hope to use the hearing to clarify Wheeler's positions on the FCC's hottest agenda items, such as network neutrality and the amount of spectrum allowed for one owner, and receive reassurances he has severed ties with the trade groups he used to represent.

Wheeler, now a venture capitalist who has advised Obama and the FCC on telecom issues, ran the National Cable Television Association in the 1980s and then wireless industry group CTIA until 2004. During Obama's presidential campaigns, Wheeler also was a major fundraiser.

"He will have to demonstrate that he can take a wider view because he's representing citizens throughout the land ... We all want to believe that he will overcome that and I hope that he will," said Michael Copps, former FCC commissioner now at the liberal advocacy group Common Cause.

Wheeler has vowed to divest stakes in several technology or telecoms companies if confirmed, including Google Inc and Dish Network Corp.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who heads the Commerce Committee, has in the past bristled at Wheeler's lobbyist past. Earlier this year, Rockefeller and dozens of other senators wrote to Obama, promoting the nomination of the committee's former staffer and now junior FCC Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel.

But aides and insiders say the hearing is unlikely to be contentious given wide industry respect for Wheeler, 67. Rockefeller's offices said on Tuesday he plans to ask Wheeler to commit to expanding E-Rate, a program that subsidizes high-speed Internet at schools, which is backed by Obama.

"I don't think that anyone on the committee has any reluctance to support Tom," said former Democratic FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, adding he did not think the senators believed in "litmus tests for the FCC Chair."

"Nobody's ever been more well-prepared for this job," Hundt said, describing Wheeler as a diplomat.

Many in the industry who have worked with Wheeler describe him as a masterful negotiator, but also a strong-willed decision-maker. That suggests a contrast to Genachowski, whose critics say his desire for consensus and unanimous votes on issues left several important issues unresolved or unfinished.

If confirmed by the Senate, Wheeler would take over at the FCC as it readies for a major reshuffling of the ownership of radio airwaves and tries to catch up to rapidly changing technology, including the transition of the telephone industry away from traditional analog networks to digital ones.

At a recent event at the nonprofit Brookings Institute, AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said he was "energized" by Wheeler leading the FCC.

"I suspect Tom and I don't agree on every policy issue, but I expect it to be a fruitful FCC," he said, calling Wheeler "a big brain" and a progressive thinker. "I think it'll be an FCC that you see begin to move really critical issues forward."

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh. Editing by Ros Krasny)

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