FCC Set for New Direction After Renomination of Democratic Commissioner Fails

Tom Wheeler FCC - H 2013
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Tom Wheeler FCC - H 2013

Jessica Rosenworcel is primed to leave the Federal Communications Commission when her term is up at the end of the month, leaving the media regulatory agency split between two Democratic and Republican commissioners each until Donald Trump nominates a new one. On Saturday, any hopes for an alternative outcome died when the U.S. Senate adjourned without a vote on another term for Rosenworcel

Upon Trump's inauguration, Tom Wheeler will step down as chairman of the agency, but his term as commissioner runs through 2018. Reportedly, Wheeler had offered to step aside if it meant another term for Rosenworcel, but Republicans apparently didn't want to take any chances of not having a FCC majority.

Trump hasn't signaled yet who he favors to be the next FCC chairman, but the individuals charged with transition have been vocally opposed to some of the agency's signature moves of recent years including net neutrality. Additionally, the two remaining Republican FCC commissioners — Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly — have been hostile towards aggressive regulatory proposals and rule-making concerning media ownership, privacy obligations for broadband providers, and competition on the cable set-top box front.

During her time at the FCC, Rosenworcel has showcased a fiercely independent streak that deterred the agency from moving hard and quickly on such controversial endeavors as making cable and satellite operators provide content for the creators of new apps and devices. She earned admiration across the political spectrum for her stances, but even support from some Republicans couldn't save her. 

Unwinding regulations like the FCC's open internet rules now before a federal appeals court isn't a particularly simple task. More rule-making will probably be in order, and there could be public blowback, but Pai has expressed his commitment to being a regulatory "weed whacker." In any case, more ambitious attempts to extend net neutrality principles to the so-called "zero-rating" of content — the practice whereby a broadband or wireless distributor excludes the consumption of its owned content from consumers' data caps — will likely go nowhere under a more skeptical administration.

One wild card in the future state of the FCC is Trump's promise to reject AT&T's proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Under a typical Republican administration, regulators would be more inclined to be hands-off on market interference. One of the individuals leading the FCC transition for Trump has even pointed to arguments for not rushing to judgment on the AT&T-Time Warner merger. It's not clear yet whether the FCC will review the proposed merger, but if Trump conceives of an agency that fights in his words "too much concentration of power in the hands of too few," he may choose to appoint a fifth commissioner outside of the traditional Republican mold.