In the first of two major developments this week signaling a changing of the guard at the FCC, Tom Wheeler announced yesterday that he will step down as FCC Chairman when President-Elect Trump takes office on January 20. Wheeler confirmed his intention to resign just days after FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel learned that she will have to leave the FCC on January 3 as a result of the Senate’s failure to vote on her nomination to a second FCC term (see story below). The departure of Wheeler and Rosenworcel will leave the FCC temporarily with three members and a Republican majority for the first time since 2009. Although no announcement has been made on nominees for the seats held by Wheeler and Rosenworcel, experts believe FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai will be asked to assume the role of interim chairman.
A Democrat and former executive of wireless association CTIA and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Wheeler succeeded Julius Genachowski as FCC Chairman in 2013. While Wheeler’s accomplishments include the launch of the first incentive auction in the FCC’s history, Wheeler is most likely to be remembered for enacting Open Internet rules last year that reclassified broadband network services under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. Calling it “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 told reporters yesterday that “serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life.”
Fellow commissioners and congressmen from both sides of the political aisle applauded Wheeler’s service, and industry executives who did not always agree with Wheeler proved generous in their praise. Characterizing Wheeler as a man who “brought passion and tenacity to the playing field each and every day,” Pai observed that, “despite our differences in many areas of communications policy, I commend him for his years of public service.” As Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) remarked that “few leaders at the FCC have known better how to expand horizons by promoting competition,” incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) wished Wheeler well, admitting that, “while Tom and I have not agreed on every issue, we’ve shared a passion for expanding access to broadband communications.” Thanking Wheeler for his hard work and for leaving his door “always open [as] he sought to balance the concerns brought forth on all sides,” a Verizon executive also expressed gratitude “for his leadership in helping unleash spectrum in 5G, a historic decision that will help preserve the U.S. global leadership position in wireless.”