WASHINGTON — After nearly four decades as a Washington lawyer and lobbyist for the cable and cellphone industries, Tom Wheeler was eager to revive long-stalled initiatives as the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
But within weeks of taking charge in November, he ran into unexpected turbulence in pushing for a review of the ban on using cellphones on airplanes.
Consumers howled that airline cabins would fill with annoying chatter. Opponents petitioned the White House to tell regulators that cellphone use should stay grounded. Lawmakers introduced bipartisan bills banning in-flight calls.
Wheeler, with the plain-spoken confidence that made him a successful lobbyist and businessman, didn't back down.
"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," he told a House hearing. "But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission."
Steeped in communications history — he's even written a book about Abraham Lincoln's use of the telegraph to help win the Civil War — Wheeler is determined to move the typically slow-moving agency into higher gear. He has a lot on his agenda.
Among the major issues are deciding whether to allow Comcast Corp. to purchase Time Warner Cable Inc., drafting new net neutrality rules governing how Internet providers run their networks, revising media ownership regulations and trying to persuade broadcasters to auction off some of their airwaves to allow for expanded wireless services.
Wheeler said he's at the FCC to make things happen.
"Of course there's risk in taking action. How many football coaches say, 'Oh, I wish we hadn't thrown that pass?'" said the 68-year-old Democrat. "But the fact of the matter is that your goal and your responsibility is to move things forward."
Wheeler is decisive and self-assured, qualities he'll have to use carefully to find consensus on a five-member commission that often has been fractious, even downright dysfunctional.
"He is going to be willing to make some people unhappy, and maybe it's going to be me," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a longtime public interest advocate at Georgetown University's Institute for Public Representation. "But he's going to be moving things forward."
And he seems intent on carving out his own legacy.
"Ever since I've known him, Tom has been a person of ideas and has wanted to make a mark with those ideas," said Reed Hundt, who dealt with Wheeler during Hundt's days as the FCC chairman in the 1990s. Wheeler also was a pragmatist, not an ideologue, as a lobbyist, he said.
A major fundraiser for President Obama, Wheeler has extensive Washington experience. And unlike FCC chairs in the last few decades, he is taking the job toward the end of his career, making the post a capstone rather than a steppingstone. And that should make him more willing to tackle controversial topics, agency observers said.
"Tom is a very accomplished person … and he theoretically doesn't need to prove anything to anyone," said former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican. "And for better or for worse, that will make him a decisive, strong chairman."
Adding pressure to his efforts, Wheeler has limited time to get things done. He's expected to leave in early 2017 when a new president assumes office.
In some ways, Wheeler would seem to be the classic industry man heading a bureaucracy that oversees the industry — a too-typical Washington scenario that lends itself to getting little accomplished.
From 1979 to 1984, he headed the National Cable Television Assn. and played a major role in pushing legislation through Congress deregulating the industry, opening the door to its dramatic growth.
He then spent several years as chief executive of technology start-ups before taking over the leadership of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn. from 1992 to 2004, a period of rapid expansion marked by repeated efforts to prevent the FCC from burdening the wireless industry with too many regulations.
Wheeler played such a key role in the growth of those two industries that he's the only person to be inducted into the Cable Television Hall of Fame and the Wireless Hall of Fame.
"Tom has a broad and deep understanding of the communications landscape both from a business perspective and policy angle and it goes back decades," said McDowell, now a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank. "That gives him one of the strongest, substantive foundations of any FCC chairman ever."
As leader of the trade groups, Wheeler was a creative and effective lobbyist, according to people who dealt with him. To demonstrate the early potential of cable TV, he invited Ohio's congressional delegation to a Washington location one fall afternoon and piped in a live feed of the Ohio State football game.
On his first day as chairman, Wheeler greeted employees in front of the FCC's building as they arrived for work. At agency meetings, he jokes easily with colleagues, unafraid to let loose with a booming laugh. He's publicly gracious to staffers, thanking them for their work.
A trim, energetic man, he appears younger than he is. But he can belie his age with outdated expressions, such as wishing people "Godspeed" in their work.
At times, though, his cheerfulness can disappear, and he can be pointed and brusque in defending his positions.
Broadcasters have complained Wheeler has targeted them for tougher regulation while favoring his former employers in the cable and wireless industries. Univision Chairman Haim Saban recently said the FCC stands for the Friendly Cable Commission.
But Wheeler has crossed his former employers as well.
He's drafting new net neutrality rules to ensure that owners of the broadband pipes don't discriminate against content providers. He wants to frame those rules to make it easier for municipalities to build broadband networks, which cable companies oppose.
He also has upset wireless carriers by proposing requirements that they improve their ability to determine the exact location of 911 calls made from inside buildings.
At the FCC's February meeting, Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai criticized Wheeler for setting an aggressive timetable for the new 911 standards.
"Well, hey, we're dealing with human life," Wheeler shot back. "It's never wrong to overreach on those kind of goals."
Wheeler worked in the cable and wireless industries when they were upstarts, not dominant players. And although he pushed free-market solutions during his years as a lobbyist, he said he wouldn't hesitate to regulate when necessary to promote and protect competition.
"My goal is to do the best damn possible job I can on behalf of my clients, the American people, and let the chips fall where they may," he said.
Though the chips seemed to fall on him when he wanted the agency to get out of regulating cellphone use on planes, Wheeler was right to push ahead, said Jeff Silva, a telecommunications analyst for Medley Global Advisors.
"It would have hurt his stature as the new FCC chairman to walk back from that so early in his tenure," Silva said. "He has a pretty thick skin and he weathered the storm."
The existing cellphone ban, based on concerns that wireless signals would interfere with navigation systems, was a relic of the analog era and no longer mattered for FCC purposes, Wheeler said.
In December, the agency voted 3 to 2 along party lines to start a formal review. Agreeing it was good to seek public input, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel grudgingly provided the pivotal vote.
"But make no mistake," she said in explaining her decision, "I do not like this proceeding."
Wheeler said the process "wasn't exactly smooth," but the problem was in the presentation, not the substance. The proposed change was only one paragraph long, and few details were provided, leading people to think cellphone use on planes was imminent. The proposal was seeking public comment on reconsidering the ban.
The experience, Wheeler said, taught him that when you're moving quickly, you've got to eschew "FCC-speak" and make sure to stop and explain yourself.
"Now, we put a lot of effort into making sure that we're explaining what in fact is going on and why," he said.