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Noose tightens around net neutrality as Democrat Chairman leaves FCC

Tom Wheeler

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has announced he will step down as Chairman on January 20, but also leave the agency completely on the same date.

While his standing down as Chairman was assumed as each president has the right to elect a Chairperson during each term, Wheeler did have the opportunity to see out his term as a Commissioner through to November 2018 (For a full write-up on the final FCC open meeting of the year check out our sister site Light Reading). The decision drastically changes the landscape of the FCC, which now has a much more Republican feel to it, as Democrat Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel will also leave her role during the first week of January.

It seems very short-sighted from the long-serving Wheeler, whose decision came a week late if the Democrats were to reconfirm Rosenworcel to her position, as Congress has now broken up for the Christmas holidays. What does this mean now? The Republicans now have a 2-1 majority of sitting Commissioners meaning the dismantling of Wheeler’s legacy, net neutrality, can begin almost immediately.

We can expect a new Republican Chairman in the near future, courtesy of a red-majority in the House of Congress, though when the Democrats will be able to get their person in the role is unknown. This is what was poor judgment from Wheeler; making this announcement a week earlier would have seen Rosenworcel reinstated and some company for Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to fight the rising tide of Republican telco policy. As it stands the Republican majority in Congress can be particularly obstructive if it wants to, blocking any Democrat nomination. Clyburn could be fighting solo for months.

But what does this mean for telco regulation? In short, Wheeler’s net neutrality crusade has come to an end and any progress made towards the concept of the open internet will be reversed.

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The fact Republicans disagree with Wheeler’s opinion on net neutrality has never been a secret. President-elect Trump has openly criticized the stance, the two members of Trump’s FCC landing team (the individuals set to ensure the FCC transitions through to the Trump party-line) have quite vocally opposed it, and the two sitting Republican Commissioners have fought Wheeler at every milestone in the net neutrality journey.

Following the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals decision to uphold government net neutrality regulations after protest from the telco industry, Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai stated “I am deeply disappointed by the D.C. Circuit’s 2-1 decision upholding the FCC’s Internet regulations. The FCC’s regulations are unnecessary and counterproductive.”

Michael O’Reilly, the other Republican Commissioner, also commented on the decision: “If allowed to stand, however, today’s decision will be extremely detrimental to the future of the Internet and all consumers and businesses that use it. More troubling is that the majority opinion fails to apprehend the workings of the Internet, and declines to hold the FCC accountable for an order that ran roughshod over the statute, precedent, and any comments or analyses that did not support the FCC’s quest to deliver a political victory.”

The position opposing net neutrality should hardly come as a surprise however. Republicans have traditionally sat on the side of the fence favouring big business, but they do have a point to a degree. Your correspondent is not favouring either side of the argument, though the telcos do have to be given the opportunity to reclaim investments made in infrastructure. The OTTs are taking them out at the knees with free messaging services, so they have to look elsewhere. Zero-rating deals and tiered internet services are one way of reclaiming lost revenues.

What we are likely to see over the next couple of months is the slow dismantling of net neutrality policies and regulations, though there are certain ones which will have to remain. As the courts have upheld some net neutrality regulations under appeal from the industry and Republican heavy hitters, there will be some protection for open internet advocates, though it will unlikely be any consolation as the majority of net neutrality regulations begin to tumble around them.

Net neutrality has always been a contentious issue considering the American Dream is primarily driven by commercial freedom, though the Republicans now have a chance to set in stone regulation which could define the future of telcos business models.


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