FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testifying before the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee in March 2016.House Energy and Commerce Committee
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As Republicans prepare to take over the Federal Communications Commission, outgoing Chairman Tom Wheeler today defended his Democratic majority’s decisions and said he hopes the FCC will continue to protect consumers under President Donald Trump.
Wheeler made the remarks in a press conference after a very short FCC meeting.
The agenda was stripped bare after Republicans in Congress asked Wheeler to halt any controversial rulemakings until the Trump inauguration in January.
The agenda originally included votes on reduced price caps and other regulations for “special access” business data services, Universal Service funding to expand mobile broadband networks, wireless roaming obligations, and requirements for audio description of TV programming for blind and visually impaired people.
All of those were taken off the agenda; Wheeler said that any item that drew objections from at least one commissioner was deleted.
But he hopes the FCC will take them up again after Republicans obtain a majority. Wheeler said:
Certain of my colleagues identified the items on today’s proposed agenda as controversial and asked that they not be considered today.
I hope that this doesn’t mean that these issues won’t be quickly addressed after the transfer of leadership of this agency.
It is unfortunate that hospitals and small businesses in search of competitive alternatives will be denied that opportunity.
They deserve better from this commission.
It is truly disappointing that 1.4 million Americans living in rural areas without LTE service will continue to be so deprived.
They deserve better from this commission. And it is tragic that 1.3 million Americans who are blind and millions more who are visually impaired will not be able to enjoy expanded video description.
They deserve better from this commission.
All of these matters are so-called ‘controversial’ because they are opposed principally by the largest incumbent firms in the sector.
As the deferred items reflect, when so-called controversy is the result of choosing between the broader common good or those incumbents preferring the status quo, I believe the public interest should prevail.
Wheeler’s departure date still unknown
After making this statement, Wheeler answered some questions from reporters. Wheeler said his staff has started preparing for the Obama-to-Trump transition, but hasn’t spoken to anyone on the Trump transition team. Wheeler said he hasn’t decided when he will leave the commission.
Trump can nominate a new chair immediately upon becoming president, but Wheeler could stay on as a commissioner even after losing his chairmanship. “As you know I serve at the pleasure of the president as chairman,” Wheeler said. “I am committed to a smooth transition.
I have not decided on a departure date but I will keep you posted.”
One Democrat will have to leave the commission to ensure that Republicans get a 3-2 majority.
The departing Democrat could either be Wheeler or Jessica Rosenworcel. Rosenworcel must leave the FCC at the end of this year, before Wheeler does, if the Senate does not approve her re-nomination.
As we’ve previously written, Senate Republicans say they won’t reconfirm Rosenworcel as long as Wheeler doesn’t say when he is going to resign.
Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly usually answer questions from journalists after FCC meetings, but they did not host their usual post-meeting press conferences today.
Wheeler: Don’t undo net neutrality
Other questions for Wheeler focused on whether the Trump administration will gut the FCC’s authority and overturn key Wheeler rulemakings like the reclassification of ISPs as common carriers and imposition of rules protecting network neutrality and broadband customers’ privacy.
“I think it’s an important thing to remember that taking a fast, fair, and open Internet away from the public and away from those who use it to offer innovative new services to the public, would be a real mistake,” Wheeler said. “That taking away network privacy that consumers enjoy as a result of our decision would be a real mistake; that taking away connecting everyone whether you’re a school, a library, in low-income America, or a person in jail, taking that away would be a real mistake; and taking away the concept that the American economy works best when there is competition, competition, competition, would be a real mistake.”
Though ISPs opposed net neutrality and other increased regulations, Wheeler argued that the FCC’s decisions have “resulted in increased revenues for those being regulated.”
Wheeler noted that 85 to 90 percent of FCC decisions are unanimous, but said he was surprised by the types of rulemakings that were 3-2 votes with Republicans voting against them.
Those include net neutrality, ISP customer privacy, broadband expansion for schools and low-income Americans, and a vote to make sure “prisoners that had a 15-minute call with their kids didn’t have to pay what you and I have to pay for a month-worth of cellular service,” he said.
“I’m surprised that those kinds of things are 3-2 votes. I think those are important principles,” Wheeler said.
Though the FCC has lowered inmate calling rates for prisoners, it hasn’t been able to lower them as much as Wheeler and fellow Democrats wanted to because of various court rulings against the commission.
In that and other cases, FCC Republicans argued that the commission under Wheeler’s leadership was overstepping its legal authority.
Trump picking conservative telecom team
Trump has criticized net neutrality rules and promised to block AT&T’s attempt to purchase Time Warner (the owner of CNN and HBO, not the similarly named cable company).
Trump barely discussed telecom during his campaign, but he seems poised to make appointments that could undo Wheeler’s major initiatives. “Jeffrey Eisenach, a consultant who has worked for years on behalf of Verizon and other telecommunications clients, is the head of the [Trump] team that is helping to pick staff members at the Federal Communications Commission,” The New York Times wrote last week.
In his three years as FCC chairman, Wheeler surprised some observers by frequently opposing the cable, wireless, and home broadband industries, given that he was formerly an industry lobbyist.
Today, Wheeler said he will “keep trying” to gain a consensus for an initiative to save cable TV customers money on set-top box rental fees.
But Republicans oppose that proposal, and it appears the FCC will not pass anything without a unanimous vote until the transition is over.
When asked if he has any regrets about his time as chairman, Wheeler said, “of course,” but “I think the kinds of things this commission has done have been really important for America and Americans, and I’m proud of that.”