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FCC chairman Wheeler wants no truck with Trump Telecom and resigns

tom-wheeler-2423

© FCC

  • Tom Wheeler to resign from FCC on Inauguration Day
  • Could a deal now be struck to re-elect commissioner Rosenworcel?
  • Ajit Pai front-runner to take over chairmanship of FCC
  • Bad news for supporters of Net Neutrality

Many might have wished otherwise, but with Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election, there was only really one course of action for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, and that was to resign. Although he still had another year of his term to serve, Wheeler would most certainly no longer be chairman, and there may well have been another motivation for his decision.

“Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honour of my professional life,” said Wheeler in a statement last night. “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.” He added: “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.”

Wheeler will officially resign on January 20 next year, the same day as Donald Trump is inaugurated as President. Good timing, Tom. Way to make a statement! 

Rosenworcel denied a new term

A couple of weeks ago, it became apparent that fellow Democrat commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was not going to be awarded another five-year term by Trump’s administration. With a Republican candidate the dead cert bet, the FCC’s partisan voting majority of 3:2 in favour of democrats would flip 3:2 in favour of republicans. That would mean any of Wheeler’s initiatives could be blocked if commissioners voted along party lines. However, it would take to select a new Republican commissioner, leaving the FCC in a 2:2 deadlock for several months.

It then emerged that Wheeler might consider stepping down if it meant Rosenworcel would stay on. Cue plenty of spinning and posturing from politicians on both sides (sorry, but isn’t this the kind of ridiculous, petty, in-fighting and antics that the people of both the UK and the US voted against this year?). The Republicans say there won’t be enough time for the Senate (which is now in recess) to re-instate Rosenworcel; the Democrats say piffle, of course there is.

Against this mess is the political manoeuvring to instate a new FCC chairman, of a Republican persuasion, naturally. It looks increasingly likely that current commissioner Ajit Pai could be the next chairman, rather than an outside appointment. But with this new presidential administration, who can possibly guess? Whatever happens, the FCC will swing back to a 3:2 Republican majority (there’s always a 3:2 split in favour of the President’s party).

“Burdensome regulations”

Many Republicans see Wheeler’s tenure as one of “burdensome regulations” and are only too eager to start the process of undoing all his work, or “rolling it back” as they like to say. Just when we thought we had a period of stability and certainty (isn’t that what the industry has long been calling for?), it’s all about to come crashing down. Yet again, the only financial winners will be the lawyers.

Yet Rosenworcel is not your typical dyed in the wool Democrat, and has challenged party policy on telecoms in the past – most recently with the set-top box bill, another of Wheeler’s initiatives that will now never come to pass.

But despite her refreshing independence at times, she was a supporter of net neutrality, which is more than can be said of wannabe chairman Pai (who will also most likely be installed as interim chairman, being the longest serving of the two republican commissioners). Pai is not exactly a supporter of net neutrality.

During the presidential campaign, Trump called net neutrality a "top down power grab" and "Obama's attack on the Internet." Mind you, Trump said a lot of things during his campaign… But it’s now odds on that net neutrality policies and broadband reclassification will be back on the agenda for a total rethink. We can think of several large US telcos that will be rubbing their hands with glee this morning.

“It would be disingenuous to suggest that we did not have significant differences with the direction the FCC took under Chairman Wheeler," said Bob Quinn, AT&T’s senior EVP of external and legislative affairs, in statement to Politico. Still, it’s never a good idea to kick a man when he’s down, and so in this season of goodwill to all, there’s time for some friendly comments: "Following [his] illustrious career, and when most people would have hung up their spikes, he chose to enter public service where he was a dedicated and tireless advocate.”

Farewell Tom, missing you already

Wheeler’s fellow commissioners also responded to his departure, in what reads like one of those dreadful over-sized leaving cards that get passed round the office and which you are obliged to sign and write nice things. Jessica Rosenworcel said: “Making change in Washington is not for the faint of heart, but the FCC accomplished much under Chairman Tom Wheeler’s watch. He brought a long history of experience in the communications sector to the job and proved himself to be a serious advocate for his positions and for consumers.”

Republican Michael O’Rielly said: “I truly thank Chairman Wheeler for his public service to our country.  While we may not have always agreed on the substance or procedures of Commission work, Tom is passionate about his views and committed to solving communications problems.”

What of chairman-wannabe Ajit Pai? He said: “Chairman Wheeler brought passion and tenacity to the playing field each and every day. Despite our differences in many areas of communications policy, I commend him for his years of public service.”

One final note: the Republican-friendly news site Breitbart picked up on Wheeler’s tendency to force through policies along party lines. It quoted Republican Senator John Thune as saying, “Chairman Wheeler has forced 3-2 votes on party-line items a total of 25 times. To put that in perspective, in three years under Chairman Wheeler the FCC has seen nearly twice as many partisan votes than in the previous 20 years combined.” Of course, Brietbart now has rather close ties with the Trump team, with the president-elect having selected the site’s publisher Steve Bannon as his Chief Strategist.

We live in very strange times indeed. Is it any wonder Wheeler decided not to stay on and obstruct the policy “realignments” that will inevitably happen?. He found the one FCC parachute and he’s bailing before it all comes crashing down. Safe landings, Tom.

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