FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has relentlessly preached "competition, competition, competition," making him a likely candidate to push back on AT&T's proposed acquisition of Time Warner. And on that one issue, there appears to be common ground with President-elect Donald Trump, who has blasted the deal and threatened to somehow break up earlier media mergers like Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal.
However, Wheeler is now supposed to be on his way out at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , and both he and his Democratic voter block (three to two among Commissioners) have little else in common with the incoming US President. Most notably, Trump is opposed to the net neutrality ruling passed by the FCC in early 2015. The issue may not be high on the President-elect's agenda compared to building a wall on the border with Mexico and repealing Obamacare, but it will be for whoever is appointed next to the FCC Chairman position. (See FCC Vote Shows Net Neutrality Strains and Trump's Impact on Telecom Still Uncertain.)
The Democratic Commissioners have done little to ingratiate themselves with their colleagues across the aisle. Beyond net neutrality, the FCC has voted three to two along party lines regarding municipal broadband regulations (since overturned in court), media ownership and, most recently, Internet privacy. (See Is Wheeler's FCC Legacy Now in Doubt? and FCC Dems Pass Broadband Privacy Rules.)
Meanwhile, the dissenting opinions from Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly have often been rancorous, with little apparent room for compromise between the parties.
As Trump prepares to take office, the FCC must also prepare for a shift in power, and the strain is already showing.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is still awaiting a Senate vote on her re-nomination. Without one, she will have to step down at the end of the year.
Chairman Wheeler has also not yet announced his own departure date, despite the fact that traditionally the chairman voluntarily leaves office when a new president is elected. Wheeler did say recently that he will work toward a smooth transition at the FCC under a new administration. If he sets a date to leave office, Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) has hinted that it could lead to a confirmation vote for Rosenworcel.
Regardless of when and how Wheeler leaves, his successor will be selected by Trump, and the ratio of Commissioners will flip from three-to-two Democratic to three-to-two Republican. According to law, only three commissioners can be of the same political party at any given time, but those who have the majority wield significant power over telecom policy.
Bottom line: The regulatory environment in the US is about to shift dramatically -- in the telecom industry as in everywhere else.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading