Tech by VICE

The FCC Just Caved in to Republican Demands That It Halt Work on Major Issues

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s tenure at the agency is coming to an end.

by Sam Gustin
Nov 16 2016, 9:38pm

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2015. Image: TechCrunch/Flickr

That's all folks.

The Federal Communications Commission has deleted every important item from Thursday's monthly meeting after Republicans in Congress warned the agency not to move forward on any major issues before Donald Trump's inauguration as president.

Over the last 24 hours, influential Republicans in both the Senate and the House sent letters to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler essentially telling him to cease work on the remaining big-ticket items on his agenda.

"I strongly urge the FCC to avoid directing its attention and resources in the coming months to complex, partisan, or otherwise controversial items that the new Congress and new Administration will have an interest in reviewing," wrote Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.

The FCC's move to delete several items from Thursday's agenda amounts to an acknowledgement that Wheeler's tenure as the nation's top communications regulator, a period marked by a variety of pro-consumer reforms, is coming to an end. Trump will nominate a new FCC chairman after he is inaugurated on January 20.

"In light of the congressional letters we received, we have revised the meeting agenda," a FCC spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement.

Thune cited precedent from 2008, when Democratic lawmakers made a similar request of the then-Republican controlled FCC, which complied, according to Thune.

As a practical matter, the remaining major items on Wheeler's agenda, including a plan to break the cable industry's stranglehold on the video "set-top box" market, are now dead. Wheeler's plan, which would have saved consumers billions of dollars annually, was vehemently opposed by Big Cable and Hollywood.

In a statement, Gene Kimmelman, president and CEO of DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge, urged Trump and his transition team to "move quickly to stop cable monopolies and media giants from ripping consumers off to the tune of almost $15 billion dollars per year with outrageous cable box fees."

"These outrageous cable box rental fees have dogged consumers for decades thanks to powerful Washington insiders and cable lobbyists," Kimmelman wrote in a letter to Trump. "We urge you to join with millions of Americans to get the FCC to unlock the box, a proposal that benefits all Americans."

That may be wishful thinking. Tech policy experts expect Trump's FCC to be much more sympathetic to the views and wishes of cable and phone giants like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, whose name has been circulated among tech policy insiders as a potential candidate for the top job, has been an outspoken critic of the agency's proposed set-top box reform.

The FCC is, however, expected to complete work on a major spectrum auction designed to free up airwaves for wireless companies.

Trump, who has lashed out on Twitter against net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers, is expected to work with the Republican-controlled Congress to install FCC officials who will seek to dismantle current US rules safeguarding net neutrality. The FCC's recently approved policy bolstering online privacy for consumers is also at risk.

In a letter on Tuesday, Craig Aaron, president and CEO of DC-based public interest group Free Press, told his organization's supporters that a Trump administration "represents an existential threat to an open internet and to an adversarial press. It threatens our fundamental human rights to speak freely, organize in our communities, protest in the streets, and govern ourselves."

"We will fight any rollback and defend your rights to speak, assemble and organize," Aaron vowed. "We will challenge officials, go to court, take to the streets, do whatever it takes. We will fight back."

Among the items deleted from Thursday's FCC meeting agenda was a vote on price caps for so-called "Business Data Services," which are specialized communications networks that serve businesses and institutions like hospitals, libraries and schools. Another item would have expanded the availability of "video described" programming for blind and visually-impaired people.

Separately on Wednesday, Gigi Sohn, a longtime consumer champion who served at the FCC for three years as Counselor to Chairman Wheeler, announced that she is leaving the agency at the end of the year. Sohn is credited by many public interest advocates with helping to push Wheeler to adopt a more pro-consumer stance on issues like net neutrality that will define his legacy—a legacy that is now at risk as Republicans prepare to take over the FCC.