FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Exiting Agency

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced Thursday he will be leaving the commission Jan. 20, the FCC confirmed.

He could have stayed on as a commissioner after Jan. 20, but after inauguration day he would no longer be chairman.

“Serving as FCC chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life," said Wheeler. "I am deeply grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity. I am especially thankful to the talented Commission staff for their service and sacrifice during my tenure. Their achievements have contributed to a thriving communications sector, where robust investment and world-leading innovation continue to drive our economy and meaningful improvements in the lives of the American people. It has been 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.”

At the FCC's Dec. 15 public meeting, where Wheeler was praised by his colleagues, he said that while he had submitted his resignation to the president today (Dec. 15),  he was simply keeping a commitment he has "repeatedly made" since March that he would hold with precedent that the chairman resigns regardless of how much time is left on his term and to cooperate with the wishes of a new Administration to ensure a smooth transition

Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel will be leaving at the end of the year, so the FCC will have a Republican majority, with commissioner Ajit Pai likely named interim chair after Wheeler's departure, though Michael O'Rielly is also in the conversation. Mignon Clyburn would be the lone Democrat.

"Like his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes, chairman Wheeler brought passion and tenacity to the playing field each and every day," said Pai. "Despite our differences in many areas of communications policy, I commend him for his years of public service. It has been a privilege to serve alongside him, and I wish him well in his future endeavors."

Wheeler joined the commission Nov. 4, 2013. And while he drew some raised eyebrows from public interest groups given his background as a lobbyist for the cable and wreless industries, he played no favorites in either of those camps, though some said Google and edge providers got the better end of the regulatory deal.

Wheeler's mantra was competition, competition, competition, and arguably his highest-profile action the reclassification of ISPs as Title II common carriers, though that is likely to be undone under a Republican Administration.

He was getting immediate warm fuzzies from public interest lawyers and groups.

"Tom Wheeler has been -- by far -- the best FCC chairman in the 45 years I have practiced communications law," said veteran public interest attorney Andrew Schwartzman. "He has been willing to take risks and expend political capital to advance his agenda.  And, unlike some predecessors, he hasn’t been afraid to confront Congress and powerful business interests when they stood in the way.  I look forward to working with him in the fight to preserve and expand upon his legacy."

"When FCC chairman Tom Wheeler departs the FCC on Jan. 20, 2017, he leaves a rich legacy of Internet safeguards designed to empower and protect average Americans," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "From network neutrality that helps ensure there are no online gatekeepers, to rules on privacy that protect the information of consumers and families, the Internet in the U.S. is a fairer and safer place due to Tom Wheeler.  A crucial test for the Trump White House will be whether it preserves these important decisions designed to help everyday Americans.  Or will the new Administration trade away American digital rights to help the super-rich and powerful phone, cable and Internet companies?  Tom Wheeler has placed his mark on the country’s broadband future, and we believe it’s worth fighting to preserve."

The  Media Mobilizing Project was equally laudatory.

"When Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler came to Philadelphia in the fall of 2014, he heard from low-income leaders in communities of color, struggling libraries and schools, people with disabilities, and community broadcasters on how important it was to protect the internet as a common medium for our right to communicate," said policy director Hannah Sassman.   

"Chairman Wheeler should be roundly praised for respecting their voices, and those he heard in cities and towns nationwide; and for taking their leadership and the leadership of millions of everyday American residents in his historic push to protect net neutrality, and protect the internet as a human right."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.