On January 20, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will see its 31st chairman Tom Wheeler step down after serving the role for three years.
Under Wheeler’s command, the FCC proposed and enacted a number of good ideas, including a $9.25 monthly broadband subsidy for low-income households, set the benchmark for broadband speed to a respectable 25 Mbps, plans to improve wireless coverage in rural areas and ensuring net neutrality.
But things could take a turn for the worse next month, when President-elect Trump nominates the next FCC chairman (he hasn’t yet named a preference for the position). Congress refused to reconfirm Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, whose vote Wheeler would need in order to pass any kind of proposal at the commission.
It’s likely that if he stayed on in the new year, he’d be demoted to a commissioner and would have to serve under a new Trump-nominated chairman.
Wheeler’s resignation will also see Republicans gain a 2-1 majority in the FCC, and that could be bad for net neutrality. It’s unclear if Trump understands exactly what it means: Two years ago, he tweeted that it was a way to attack conservative media.
Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2014
What he has done already, though, is alarming: Last month, he appointed two anti-net neutrality stalwarts, economist Jeffrey Eisenach of the American Enterprise Institute and Mark Jamison of the Public Utility Resource Center at the University of Florida, to oversee the FCC transition as he took office. In June, Jamison wrote in a paper on net neutrality:
Net neutrality is hindering the very innovations it is supposed to protect, creating undue scrutiny and threatening bans of pro-consumer services.
Recode noted that there’s a chance the reshuffled FCC might seek to undo the classification of the internet as a public utility, and thereby undermine net neutrality principles in the country. It certainly sounds plausible at the moment – especially without a champion like Wheeler to defend them.