Wheeler, who was appointed by President Obama three years ago to lead the FCC, announced he intends to leave his post on Jan. 20, 2017. His exit is not a surprise: Trump has been widely expected to install new leadership at the agency, and he recently recruited two conservative economists — Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison — for his transition team to focus on the FCC and telecom policy, and both are considered in the running as Trump’s FCC chairman pick.
“Sitting in this chair has been the great privilege of my professional career,” Wheeler said as the FCC’s open commission meeting on Thursday concluded. “I want to thank all of my colleagues. It has been a team effort.”
He made reference to tensions that surfaced between the him and Republicans on the commission. “When you put five type-A personalities together, lots of interesting things happen, including not always seeing eye to eye.”
But he said that while the headlines focused on the differences, “the facts are we accomplished a lot.”
In the interim, Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai is expected to be named interim chairman. He’s also seen as a contender for the permanent job.
One of Wheeler’s signature accomplishments as head of the commission was the adoption of network neutrality rules, and both of Trump’s telecom-policy advisers have voiced strong opposition to the measure. The FCC Open Internet Order, which also has been fought by broadband and wireless service providers, forbids ISPs from slowing down or blocking traffic or from prioritizing access for paying content partners.
Wheeler, in a statement, said: “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.”
He added, “Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life. I am deeply grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity.”
Prior to his October 2013 confirmation as FCC chairman, Wheeler was managing director at venture capital firm Core Capital Partners. He also was president of cable trade org NCTA from 1979 to 1984, and led the CTIA from 1992 to 2004.
Wheeler’s resignation will likely leave Republicans with an immediate 2-1 majority on the FCC when Trump takes office. The tenure of another Democratic commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, ends on Dec. 31, and the Senate recessed last week without acting on her renomination.
Andrew Schwartzman of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center called Wheeler “by far – the best FCC Chairman in the 45 years I have practiced communications law.”
“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,” Schwartzman said.
Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner who at times was critical of Wheeler’s tenure, said in a statement, “Like his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes, Chairman Wheeler brought passion and tenacity to the playing field each and every day. 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.”
Pai is a potential acting chairman or even permanent successor.
Ted Johnson contributed to this report.