The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will have a new chairman come next year. Current FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced he will renounce his position after President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
“Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life,” Wheeler said in a statement. “It has been a privilege to work with my fellow Commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and security, and ensure fast, fair and open networks for all Americans.”
It’s customary for FCC chairman to resign at the start of a new presidential administration, but until Thursday, Wheeler had refused to publicly commit to stepping down when President Barack Obama leaves office.
Wheeler was appointed by Obama three years ago to lead the FCC. Prior to his October 2013 confirmation, he served as managing director at venture capital firm Core Capital Partners, and from 1979 to 1984 led the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a cable trade organization. He was subsequently elected president of the Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CTIA) from 1992 to 2004.
Wheeler, a former cable lobbyist, faced scrutiny from consumer advocacy groups and editorialists alike at the start of his tenure. “Obama’s Bad Pick: A Former Lobbyist at the FCC,” said the headline in The New Yorker on the day after Wheeler’s nomination. The Free Press and the New American Foundation’s Open Technology Institute expressed doubts about whether Wheeler would be able to maintain impartiality, while telecoms applauded his appointment. AT&T called the nomination an “inspired pick,” and Comcast praised Wheeler for his “proven leadership.”
Initially, the fears of consumer advocates appeared well-founded. In late 2013, Wheeler expressed a reluctance to outlaw “paid prioritization,” the practice of charging companies like Netflix for priority access to subscribers’ homes.
But to pundits’ surprise, Wheeler championed policies the industry had long opposed. With a 3-2 Democratic majority at the FCC, he advanced net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should treat all traffic equally, and opposed throttling, the practice of slowing internet subscribers’ speeds. He invoked the FCC’s Title II rules to reclassify fixed and mobile broadband as common carrier service subject to greater regulatory scrutiny, and used the authority to forbid internet providers from blocking services in exchange for payment. And he preempted state laws that forbid the expansion of municipal broadband networks.
That agenda raised the ire of incumbents like Verizon and others, who compared Wheeler’s policies to “1930s-era utility regulation.” Both the NCTA and CTIA have sued the FCC in an effort to overturn Title II.
Wheeler’s aggressively pro-consumer moves didn’t stop there. He refused to approve Comcast’s attempted acquisition of Time and pressured Sprint to abandon its bid for T-Mobile. He proposed a $100 million fine against AT&T for throttling unlimited plans without adequately notifying customers that their speeds would be reduced, advanced legislation to legalize cell phone unlocking, and imposed new rules against robocalling. And he recommended fines for cell phone providers accused of “bill cramming” — obscuring third-party fees and services in customers’ monthly.
In the final months of 2016, Wheeler pursued a plan to unbundle television subscriptions from set-top boxes. The new regulations, if approved, would require pay-TV companies like Comcast, Cox, and Charter to let channel video streams pass through third-party hardware like Apple TVs, Roku boxes, tablets, and smartphones.
Wheeler’s departure means the Trump administration will begin with a 2-1 Republican majority, and, by extension, the freedom to dismantle Obama-era policies. Roslyn Layton, Jeffrey Eisenach, and Mark Jamison, the preliminary appointees to Trump’s advisory transition team, are outspoken opponents of net neutrality.
“[Trump’s FCC advisors have] habitually opposed the communications rights of real people, prioritizing instead the monopoly of companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon,” Free Press said. Layton supports the right of internet service providers to accept money in exchange for exempting services from data caps, a controversial practice known as zero rating. Eisenach formerly worked on behalf of Verizon. And Jamison, a public opponent of Wheeler’s initiatives, wants to eliminate most of the FCC.
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