Wheeler to leave FCC as Trump enters White House

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks at CTIA's Super Mobility 2016 earlier this year

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he will leave the agency next month as Donald Trump is inaugurated, likely paving the way for significant rollbacks of Obama administration regulations.

Wheeler’s term technically doesn’t expire until 2018, but he will step down Jan. 20. FCC leaders customarily leave when the White House changes hands to allow the new administration to make appointments, but there was some speculation that Wheeler would remain on as a commissioner under a new chairperson.

“I am deeply grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity. I am especially thankful to the talented Commission staff for their service and sacrifice during my tenure,” Wheeler said in a brief statement released by the FCC. “Their achievements have contributed to a thriving communications sector, where robust investment and world-leading innovation continue to drive our economy and meaningful improvements in the lives of the American people. It has been a privilege to work with my fellow Commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and cybersecurity, and ensure fast, fair and open networks for all Americans.”

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Wheeler has led the FCC since 2013 and has overseen some major initiatives at the Commission including the adoption of net neutrality rules, requiring fixed-line and wireless broadband service providers to treat all web traffic equally. More recently, Wheeler had worked to open up the leased set-top business in the pay-TV industry and to impose new regulations on the business data services (BDS) market.

Analysts say both of those efforts are likely to be shelved under a Trump administration, however. And while Wheeler’s FCC had questioned wireless carriers regarding emerging business models of zero-rated data, a reversal of the net neutrality rules would make that effort moot as well.

Democrats enjoyed a 3-2 majority on the Commission under Wheeler, who said last week that he was willing to step down immediately if the U.S. Senate reconfirmed fellow Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel to another five-year term. The Republican-controlled Senate took no action, though, and Wheeler’s departure will give Republicans a 2-1 edge on a shorthanded Commission as Trump takes office.

Telecom industry insiders agree that the FCC under Trump will demonstrate a significantly lighter touch than it has under Obama. All three members of the president-elect’s FCC landing team served as visiting fellows at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, and all three have vocally criticized the net neutrality rules adopted by the FCC under the Obama administration. The Trump White House will almost surely see the reversal of net neutrality and other of Wheeler’s top priorities; it may also see significantly more consolidation in the wireless, telecom and media industries.

“Though we expect some compromise with respect to net neutrality, we expect the idea of paying for fast lanes (paid prioritization) to be front and center in this debate” once the Trump administration is in place, Jefferies analysts wrote in a recent research note. “In this environment, broadband providers would undoubtedly benefit, while potentially prioritizing owned content. Content providers are likely to oppose any change, though larger, well capitalized companies could hold an advantage relative to those unwilling or unable to pay for fast lanes.”

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