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Wireless Connections

Lobbyist shines as head of the industry's main trade group, but challenges mount


WASHINGTON — With his six cell phones and million-dollar salary, Tom Wheeler stands out even among Washington's army of high-powered lobbyists.

His communications arsenal and hefty pay--among the highest of any Washington lobbyist--underscore his rise from Fuller brush salesman to the top ranks of Washington's influence peddlers as president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn.

During his 10 years as head of the group, Wheeler, 56, has helped the wireless industry recover from near-crippling allegations that cell phones cause cancer, successfully lobbied federal lawmakers to roll back state and local regulation of mobile carriers and outmaneuvered the Pentagon to win the transfer of hundreds of megahertz of valuable wireless airwaves from the Defense Department to commercial carriers. The latter move has helped fuel a huge expansion of the mobile phone market, which has 137 million subscribers.

"Tom Wheeler is the rock star of telecom," said Pat Mitchell, president of the Public Broadcasting Service, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group. "He's always the one that shakes things up a bit ... and makes people listen to what he has to say."

But this year, Wheeler's leadership is being tested as local, state and federal lawmakers come under pressure to crack down on the industry amid safety concerns and spreading financial calamity that has plunged wireless carriers into debt.

On Aug. 16, New York City Councilman Philip Reed introduced a measure to ban cell phones in public places throughout the city, including libraries, movie theaters and museums, saying the devices are "distracting" and "a public nuisance." The measure, which has little chance of passing, comes less than a year after the state made it illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while operating a motor vehicle.

In Washington, federal regulators are pushing initiatives that would require the wireless industry to spend billions of dollars to expand capacity and offer new services.

More ominous, lawmakers such as Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are resurrecting cell phone safety concerns and pressuring Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell to protect consumers from financially unstable telecom providers.

During the industry's boom times, Wheeler kept lawmakers and regulators at bay with a powerful message: Unfettered by heavy government regulation, the wireless industry has boosted the nation's economy over the last decade and produced tens of thousands of jobs.

But with industry growth slowing and regulators angling for a crackdown, Wheeler will need to shift gears. He must seek out industry allies, leverage the political clout of the nation's wireless subscribers and secure more precious airwaves so the industry can continue to grow, colleagues and analysts say. Many think Wheeler, who already has broadened the cellular association's core membership to include powerful technology companies such as Microsoft Corp., is more than up to the task of fending off industry opponents.

"Tom can stick the knife in one of his rivals and the rival feels he has been patted on the back," said former FCC Chairman Reed E. Hundt. Wheeler describes his political survival instincts more succinctly: "When you're losing the battle," he said, "change the rules."

Wheeler says that although wireless carriers support efforts to increase cell phone safety and competition in the industry, many government get-tough efforts are ill-advised. He said looming government mandates to create a $1-billion phone number conservation plan as well as new technology to pinpoint the location of a mobile user dialing 911 "take millions of dollars away from what customers say is their No. 1 request, and that's better service quality."

The son of an Ohio insurance agent, Wheeler gave little thought to Washington or communications technology while growing up. Instead, he chose to remain in the Midwest and follow his father's path as a salesman. Wheeler's first job out of Ohio State University was selling Fuller brushes door to door.

He can still recite his Fuller brush sales pitch but says it still smarts to recall the many doors closed in his face while he was pitching the product.

The unpleasant encounters triggered a career change. In the early 1970s, Wheeler became a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturer's Assn. in Washington and later moved on to lobby for the National Cable Television Assn., also in Washington.

At the TV group, he developed a keen interest in technology, and in the early 1990s he quit the association to head the U.S. division of a Canadian start-up that distributed computer software over cable TV lines. Although the software sold well, the company closed down Wheeler's unit six months after he joined.

The experience, Wheeler said, "was kind of my welcome to the real world." Wheeler returned to Washington lobbying, taking the helm of the cellular association in 1992.

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