WASHINGTON-The wireless telecommunications industry is at a crossroads.

Either the ever-popular mobile phone used by more than 35 million people today will remain forever a nice little extra for business people and safety-conscious citizens or it will evolve into something much bigger and revolutionary: the telephone of the next millennium.

At stake is the lucrative local exchange market dominated by Bell telephone companies for the past century. That is it; the future, clear as day. No big mystery. Whether that future can be realized by the wireless telecommunications industry is the question.

The foundation has been set. Congress in 1993 deregulated wireless and this year extended that policy to the rest of the telecommunications industry with passage of landmark legislation signed by President Clinton Feb. 8.

Now the Federal Communications Commission must write new rules of fair competition. But ultimately the wireless industry-not the federal government-will determine whether the promised land of the local exchange market is reached. The industry controls its destiny.

That’s the message Thomas Wheeler will bring to the wireless industry when he herds it to Dallas this week for the 11th annual convention of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. Wheeler, in his fourth year as president of CTIA, should have plenty of listeners. More than 20,000 attendees are expected.

The theme of the CTIA meeting is appropriately “Get in the Loop.” “I think we are at the decisive time for our industry,” said Wheeler in an interview. “It’s been 12 years getting to this point and what we are now has prepared us to go forward.”

Success in the future, according to Wheeler, will depend on how the wireless industry relates with customers, government policymakers, the telecommunications industry and itself.

“We are not your father’s car phone anymore,” said Wheeler. “We are not just an upper-end income tool anymore.”

The industry, he explained, must remember the customer is king and not forget the mess the cable TV industry got itself into by not serving subscribers right.

Wheeler said how the industry communicates with policymakers, particularly regarding the implementation of the telecommunications bill, also is crucial to future progress.

“Already the lobbying games have begun of running to Congress and saying, `Go tell the FCC this isn’t really what you mean. Get in there and micromanage,’*” said Wheeler. As such, he said there’ll be efforts to keep lawmakers focused on the competitive thrust of the bill and prevent them from being steered toward an interventionist direction.

The wireless industry’s relationship with the rest of the telecommunications industry also must reflect the competitive underpinnings of the telecommunications bill, according to Wheeler.

Indeed, the big fight of 1996 involves interconnection between commercial mobile radio service providers and local exchange carriers. “If we have to pay 3 cents a minute on average to terminate a call from a wireline network and a wireline network pays 0 cents to terminate a call from a wireless network, we will never compete, period,” said Wheeler.

For the moment, the wireless industry has the FCC in its corner. But an FCC proposal, which proposes that wireless and wireline carriers keep revenue from calls they originate and terminate each other’s calls at no charge, is being challenged by regional Bell telephone companies and their powerful lobbying arm, the United States Telephone Association.

Wheeler said the other challenge facing the wireless industry is staying united, a not-so-easy task tested by the LEC-CMRS interconnection, antenna siting, hearing aid interference and cancer lawsuits. But the industry has hung together.

“The most challenging part of the job is the building of consensus,” said Wheeler. “Everybody thinks my job is to convince the government that this is what they should do. That’s the easiest part. The hardest part is arriving at an industry position … that is a balanced and a responsible position that we can take forward.”

This is where Wheeler is at his best. He welcomes challenges, does not shrink from adversity-thrives on both-and proudly takes his place where technology, public policy and politics intersect. It is what he says he finds so interesting about Winston Churchill and history (he’s a Civil War buff) in general: how leaders respond in times of trouble.

“I have come to the conclusion that I like playing a role in leading people in great struggles,” said Wheeler.

While he is without peer as a lobbyist, the fiery yet engaging Wheeler also has shown himself to be a visionary and consensus builder in the wireless industry. He’s built CTIA into the most powerful and influential wireless trade group, surrounding himself with a cast of some of the best and brightest policy wonks in town. He’s paid well for that, $650,000 at last check. Probably least known about Wheeler is his work in the community and with charitable groups. Where he finds the time is anyone’s guess.

President Clinton last year named Wheeler to a six-year term on the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Back at work, Wheeler is driving the agenda for the wireless industry.

He’s beating out the Personal Communications Industry Association for bragging rights. Both Wheeler and PCIA President Jay Kitchen play down the notion of competition between the two trade groups. But it exists, fierce as ever.

At one time, Wheeler’s CTIA was seen as anything but a big wireless tent. The association early on fought against personal communications services and specialized mobile radio rules that fostered competition against the cellular duopoly. Those were battles Wheeler did not win. Competitive policy won. He switched gears and now embraces a philosophy that might go something like this: If you can’t beat them, have them join you.

And they are. PCS, SMR and mobile satellite firms are being welcomed into the big tent. Who else but Wheeler could have enticed American Personal Communications Chairman Wayne Schelle to join CTIA? Remember the Tom-and-Wayne Show a couple years ago, the sharp barbs exchanged between the two men over PCS rules. Now Wheeler champions Schelle’s cause and the cause of other commercial wireless carriers.

Last year was a huge success for Wheeler, being the dominant industry figure behind a series of regulatory and legislative victories. He helped convince Congress to include a national antenna siting policy and various deregulatory wireless provisions in the telecommunications reform bill. Three years earlier, Wheeler was the lightning rod for regulatory parity legislation in Congress.

Wheeler won President Clinton’s support for antenna siting on federal property (later codified in the telecommunications bill), though compliance has been lacking.

Headstrong efforts by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) on behalf of wireless resellers to mandate unbundled and switched interconnection were fought off by Wheeler and others.

Strong lobbying by CTIA last year at the FCC kept a handful of states from retaining regulatory powers over commercial wireless carriers and got regulators to propose an overhaul of the North American Numbering Plan.

More recently, Wheeler has stood up to wireless investor James Valentine’s crusade to outlaw Global System for Mobile communications-based pocket phones because the technology can cause interference to hearing aids. Valentine is an investor in North American Wireless Inc., of Vienna, Va., which plans to use a competing wireless technology-Code Division Multiple Access-to build PCS.

While the hearing impaired community is now working with Wheeler and the wireless industry to enable the nation’s 5 million hearing aid wearers to use digital phones and be around other phone users without experiencing harsh, buzzing sounds, Valentine finds himself more and more isolated.

Wheeler has
his detractors though. He’s waging war against fixed microwave users that allegedly are demanding exorbitant prices to be relocated from the 2 GHz PCS band to higher frequencies. Each side accuses the other of playing loose with the facts.

“These are great times,” declares Wheeler. “This is not a way station. This is not a changing of lanes on the highway. We’re about to get on a whole new road.”


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