Wheeler Introduces New Staff


Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, who was expected to be an activist chairman, shook things up last week with his appointment of public-interest advocate Gigi Sohn as special counsel for external affairs, overseeing outreach to the media and Congress.

“This team provides an excellent mix of governmental, private-sector and public-interest expertise,” Wheeler said last week in announcing his new staff.

It was the “public-interest expertise” part that had Washington buzzing. The rumor circulating the week before was that Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, might be named head of the agency’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. She had nixed that speculation in no uncertain terms, but turned out to have an FCC post waiting for her anyway.

Broadcasters on background expressed some concern about Sohn joining the FCC given Public Knowledge’s advocacy for retransmission-consent reforms that broadcasters argue undercut their negotiating position to the detriment of their business model and, ultimately, their viewers.

Those same broadcasters were already worried about where they would stand in a Wheeler FCC given his background as a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries. Wheeler said at his nomination hearing that while he had no problem with broadcasters getting more money for their signals, he doesn’t like consumers “being held hostage over corporate disputes,” and that the FCC would be looking into the issue.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell certainly sounded upbeat about Sohn’s appointment. “Hearty congratulations to @gigibsohn. One of the finest voices for the public there ever has been. @FCC gaining a true star,” he tweeted on learning of the appointment.

In an interview with Multichannel News, Sohn briefly described her new job.

“My portfolio is really three things,” she said. “It is thirdparty outreach and coalition building, which will take up a lot of my time. And I also will oversee the Office of Media Relations.”

She said that will include “shaping the message.” The third thing will be heading up intergovernmental affairs. “I will be overseeing the office of legislative affairs, but I am also going to be working with agencies that have an interest in broadband policy, including the Department of Education, HUD, Health and Human Services, and Interior to try and strengthen their relationship with the FCC.”

So, what of those broadcaster concerns about the former head of Public Knowledge, a group that has been pushing for retrans alongside cable operators, taking the calls from the American Television Alliance?

“I don’t think they should be concerned at all,” Sohn said. “Let me get in my job first, but I have a reputation of being an honest broker.”

Sohn and Public Knowledge were at the table with cable operators when they hammered out the compromise Open Internet order with the FCC.

“We’ve known and respected Gigi for 20 years,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. “She’s super smart and will be Chairman Wheeler’s fi ercest advocate. She’s also pro-competition, and we’re optimistic that she and Chairman Wheeler will acknowledge that fair retrans compensation allows local TV stations to remain competitive against behemoth pay TV giants like Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and DISH.”

Familiar Faces

New Federal Communications Committ ee chairman Tom Wheeler wasted no time announcing his new team. Of course, he had several months of planning between his approval by the Senate Commerce Committee and his eventual, whirlwind confirmation two weeks ago.

In introducing his team to the FCC last week, Wheeler had already tasked one of them with some early homework: Special counsel Diane Cornell will head up a temporary working group to look into various proposals for FCC reform and have a report on Wheeler’s desk within 60 days.

Wheeler’s team is heavy on FCC experience and drew plaudits from a number of industry players. Here are some of the familiar FCC faces who will be helping Wheeler run what the chairman pledged last week would be a pro-competition commission.

Ruth Milkman, chief of staff, has been chief of the Wireless Bureau since 2009 (with a brief sabbatical), but her dozen years of prior experience at the FCC include being deputy chief of the International and Common Carrier bureaus and senior legal advisor to former chairman Reed Hundt.

Phil Verveer, senior counselor to the chairman, was most recently Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy for the State Department. In that role he was the point person for the U.S. pushback on international Internet governance issues. But he is also familiar to cable ops, broadcasters and phone companies from his first go-round at the FCC, when he was chief of what were then (the 70s and early 80s) the Cable Television Bureau, the Broadcast Bureau and the Common Carrier Bureau.

Diane Cornell, special counsel, was most recently at Inmarsat, but her FCC experience is wide and deep. It includes serving as legal advisor to three different commissioners, chief of staff of the Wireless Bureau, and division chief in the International and Common Carrier Bureaus.