Tom Wheeler today announced he will step down as FCC chairman on Jan. 20.
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"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. "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. 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."
The announcement is not particularly shocking, as incoming presidents usually select new FCC chairs. Obama nominated Wheeler in 2013 following the departure of Julius Genachowski. At the time, some were concerned that Wheeler—a telecom veteran who had served as president of the National Cable & Telecommunication Association (NCTA) from 1979 to 1984 and president of CEO of CTIA, the wireless industry association, from 1992 to 2004—would be too beholden to the industry. But he has presided over some rather progressive rulemakings at the commission, most notably the reclassification of broadband as a telecom service rather than an information service so that the FCC's net neutrality rules would survive a court challenge.
More recently, the FCC approved privacy rules intended to give Internet users more control over how ISPs use their personal information, and moved to allow for more competition in the pay TV set-top box industry. It has also been working on the 5G transition and providing broadband subsidies to low-income Americans.
For now, however, the agency is in a holding pattern. Following the election of Donald Trump, the FCC deleted all of the big-ticket items from its monthly meeting last month at the request of Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who sent a letter requesting that the agency not take up any "complex, partisan, or otherwise controversial items" until next year.
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Tabled agenda items included the next phase of the agency's effort to improve mobile broadband access, as well as proposals to implement a unified roaming standard and regulate Voice over LTE (VoLTE).
Democrats sent a similar letter in 2008, asking the FCC to hold off on work regarding the transition to digital television until President Obama took office; the agency complied.
It does not appear that the Trump administration will pick up where Wheeler left off. Trump has criticized the FCC's net neutrality rules, and has appointed net neutrality (and regulation) foes Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison to advise him on FCC matters. As Jamison wrote in an October blog post, "Do we need the FCC?"
The FCC did not say who might serve as interim chairman once Wheeler leaves the agency; one name that has been floated is current Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai. Trump's FCC chairman nomination will need to be approved by the Senate.