FCC’s Tom Wheeler Hitting the Road

United States Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday announced that he will leave the agency he helmed for the past three years on Jan. 20, the day President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn in.

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

Appointed by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the Senate, Wheeler became the 31st chairman of the FCC on Nov. 4, 2013. Prior to leading the agency, he had spent three decades working in the telecommunications industry as a policy expert, advocate and businessman.

At 67 years of age, he was the oldest person to accept the job of chairman, but he also was one of the most experienced to hold the position.

The Bo Jackson of Telecom

Prior to joining the FCC, Wheeler served as managing director for Core Capital Partners, a venture capital firm that helped fund companies that were developing Internet Protocol-based technology. He also served as president and CEO of the strategic development and private investment company Shiloh Group, which specializes in telecommunication services.

Earlier in his career Wheeler cofounded SmartBrief, one of the largest election information services for vertical markets, and he served as president and CEO of the National Cable Television Association.

Wheeler has the distinction of being the only person to be named to both the Cable Television Hall of Fame and the Wireless Hall of Fame. President Obama jokingly referred to Wheeler as “the Bo Jackson of telecom,” a reference to the professional athlete who played both professional basement and football.

Upon taking charge of the FCC, Wheeler called for efforts to rebuild the American telephone system and replace it with an IP-based communications system.

Balance of Power

With Wheeler, who is a Democrat, stepping down as a Republican enters the White House, and as the GOP retains control of the House of Representatives and the Senate — the first time since before the Second World War that the Republicans have controlled both the executive and legislative branches of government — there will be an immediate swing to the right at the commission.

“The question wasn’t whether Wheeler would resign, but when,” said Stephen Blum, principal analyst at Tellus Venture Associates.

“He loses the chairman’s job automatically, and there seemed little likelihood that he was interested in a demotion to working commissioner on the minority side,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Now, “with Tom Wheeler stepping down as both chairman and commissioner, that will leave the FCC with a GOP 2-1 majority,” noted Ryan Radia, research fellow and regulatory counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Wider Changes

The timing of Wheeler’s decision resulted in consequences beyond his own tenure at the commission.

“The fact that Wheeler is waiting until Trump is inaugurated means that the FCC lost the services of Jessica Rosenworcel — she couldn’t be confirmed until Wheeler stepped down, and that had to happen before the Senate left for the year,” explained Blum.

“It didn’t, so she’s out; and if Wheeler occupies his seat until Trump comes in, the odds of her ever coming back drop drastically,” he added. “The major changes will be the result of a Trump-appointed chair and Republican majority.”

Future of Net Neutrality

The new balance of power at the FCC could mean changes for the Open Internet rules and Net neutrality, but the shift could be slow moving.

“It is likely that the commission will work to revise Title II of the Open Internet rules,” CEI’s Radia told the E-Commerce Times.

The Open Internet rules went into effect on June 12, 2015, to ensure that consumers and businesses would have equal access to broadband speed delivery of content. However, more than 100 Internet companies have expressed vocal opposition to the rules.

“The process to overturn those rules could start quickly behind the scenes,” noted Radia. “The public comment period could occur very quickly, while Congress will engage in its own efforts to reverse the statute.”

Trumping the Open Internet

Exactly what will happen to Net neutrality isn’t certain, but enforcement of it likely will change, at the very least.

“Trump’s advisors, as well as the two current Republican commissioners, have all gone on record as favoring a regulatory rollback, with the Net neutrality rules at the top of the list,” said Tellus Venture Associates’ Blum.

“The immediate impact won’t be from a formal proceeding — it’ll be on the enforcement side. The current Net neutrality rules leave considerable room for administrative and commission-level interpretation,” he added.

“The recent attempt by FCC staff to get involved in zero rating by mobile carriers — allowing unlimited data for in-network video — is a good example,” said Blum. “Under Wheeler — or likely any Democratic chair — a crackdown on zero rating seemed likely, but with a Republican majority, that’s not going to happen.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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