FCC Chair Tom Wheeler To Step Down When Trump Takes Office

Image courtesy of Consumer Reports

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler — the former frontman for both the cable and wireless industries who has recently pushed the Commission into new, controversial areas of regulation that clash with the apparent goals of the incoming Trump administration — has confirmed his plans to step down after the President-elect gets the keys to the Oval Office.

“Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life,” said Wheeler in a statement this morning. “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. 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.”

Wheeler is not required by law to step down. He has nearly two years remaining on his five-year term. However, Trump would have had the authority to bump Wheeler down a peg from his role as Chair to being just one of the four other FCC commissioners led by whomever the new President names as Chair.

Early on in his tenure, Wheeler was labeled a “dingo” by skeptics (including yours truly) who expressed concerns about his background as president of both the wireless lobbying group CTIA and the National Cable and Telecom Association. However, the Chairman soon demonstrated in many cases that his agenda was not a business-first approach.

Under Wheeler, the FCC successfully moved to block the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast; attempted (but lost in court) to undo some state laws that forbid city/county-owned broadband providers from selling to customers who need the service; initiated an industry-led anti-robocall strike force with the goal of providing consumers free tools for blocking often-illegal automated calls; tried to reform the set-top box market; and led the charge on establishing new “net neutrality” rules that prevent internet service providers from actively blocking, favoring, or slowing down access to online content.

To enact neutrality rules that withstood a legal challenge — the previous ones had been gutted in court by Verizon — Wheeler’s FCC had to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications utility (like landline phone service), giving the agency more oversight of the industry.

While Trump has yet to name his choice as successor to Wheeler, all current indications are that the next FCC Chair will likely seek to undo many of the current administration’s more high-profile regulations.

Congress has the authority — thanks to a little-used 1996 law called the Congressional Review Act — that allows lawmakers to try to roll back recently enacted federal regulations. If they don’t like a rule, they can vote to issue a joint memorandum of disapproval; if signed by the President, the regulation would be rolled back.

The Review Act has only been used successfully once in twenty years, but it’s expected to be a tool that Congress and the Trump White House will deploy liberally in the coming months. Because of the way the law is worded, Congress may be able to go back and undo regulations that were enacted as far back as last May or June.

In November, days after the elections, GOP lawmakers reportedly advised the FCC of the futility of moving forward with new regulations. The afternoon before the Commission’s monthly open meeting on Nov. 17, the FCC suddenly deleted all important items from the agenda.

After that very brief meeting, Wheeler gave an impassioned talk, defending his Commission’s work and — without naming names — calling on the President-elect to not forget about consumers.

“I think it’s an important thing to remember that taking a fast, fair and open internet away from the public and away from those who use it to offer innovative new services to the public would be a real mistake,” explained the Chair, adding “that taking away network privacy that consumers enjoy as a result of our decision would be a real mistake; that taking away connecting everyone — whether you’re a school, a library, a low-income American, or a person in jail — taking that away would be a real mistake. Taking away the concept that the American economy works best when there is competition, competition, competition, would be a real mistake.”

While Wheeler had not previously stated anything about his intention to step down, the Chair had reportedly been hoping that the possibility of his being on the Commission for another two years would have pushed the Senate to finally re-confirm fellow Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. However, the Senate recently adjourned without taking up Rosenworcel’s future at the FCC. That now means that Trump will be able to name two Commissioners to the FCC after he takes office in Jan. 2017.

Concluded Wheeler, “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.”

In a statement emailed to Consumerist, former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now an advisor with advocacy group Common Cause, praises Wheeler’s term as Chair.

“Tom Wheeler built a truly historic record of achievement as Chairman of the FCC,” says Copps. “At the pinnacle of his achievement is net neutrality. All those who understand the critical importance of this will best honor Tom now by joining together to preserve what his FCC did from the onslaughts of those who would reverse the rules, reverse the power of an open internet, and reverse history itself.”

Copps also speaks well of Wheeler’s work on issues like consumer privacy and broadband deployment, and appears to lament what is to come under the next administration.

“We will need Tom’s voice and leadership after January 20 as much as before,” says Copps, “not just to preserve one individual’s achievements but to build a telecom and media environment of, by, and for the American people.”

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