FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to Step Down

Tom Wheeler Getty H 2016
Noam Galai/Getty Images

The move ensures the Republicans will take strong control of the FCC and could endanger net neutrality regulations.

Tom Wheeler said Thursday that he will depart the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after more than three years at the media regulatory agency.

Wheeler's term as chairman at the FCC was presumed to be coming to an end on Jan. 20, when President Barack Obama hands over power to President-elect Donald Trump. However, he could have remained a commissioner through 2018.

Wheeler, a former telecom entrepreneur and lobbyist, was appointed by Obama in 2013.

"Serving as FCC chairman during this period of change has been the greatest honor of my professional life. I am deeply grateful to the president for giving me this opportunity," Wheeler said on Thursday. "It has been a privilege to work with my fellow commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and cyber security, and ensure fast, fair and open networks for all Americans."

Wheeler's resignation will put the FCC at a 2-1 Republican majority until Trump fills out the five-commissioner agency and names a new commissioner. On Saturday, the U.S. Senate adjourned without a confirmation vote for Jessica Rosenworcel for another term. Her coming departure set off months of jockeying for position at the FCC between Republicans and Democrats. Wheeler earlier offered to step aside to secure another term for Rosenworcel, but Republicans apparently weren't willing to take any chances of losing a FCC majority.

The development leaves some of Wheeler's biggest achievements, including net neutrality rules, in high danger under conservative leadership. Trump's FCC transition team has voiced skepticism over the years for the need to reclassify the internet as a public utility and begin regulating against throttling, paid prioritization of traffic and more. Digital entertainment giants like Netflix have been strongly in favor of such measures while telecoms continue to fight in court.

Attention will now turn to who Trump names as the new FCC chairman. During his campaign, he promised to reject AT&T's proposed $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner, but it has yet to be determined whether the FCC will review the deal.