FCC’s 5 biggest battles for Trump’s first year

Greg Nash

Republicans are poised to take control of the Federal Communications Commission and the agency is bracing for a shake-up.

Under Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC pursued an ambitious agenda, capped by its controversial net neutrality rules. But after Donald Trump’s election, Republicans demanded that Wheeler halt his work on any controversial items.

Wheeler will step down in 2017 and control is tilting to the agency’s Republican commissions after Dem Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel failed to be reconfirmed.

It’s unclear who Trump will tap for the new chairman, but his transition team has been staffed with vocal critics of the net neutrality rule and other Wheeler initiatives.

Republicans are already laying the groundwork for rolling back many of the FCC’s signature policy measures under President Obama, and pushing their own priorities.

Here are 5 looming fights for the agency in Trump’s first year:


1. Net Neutrality

The fate of the agency’s net neutrality rules will be the FCC’s biggest fight of the year. Republicans have firmly opposed the rules requiring internet service providers to treat all web traffic. And its split the tech world, with broadband and telecom companies against the measure, and major internet companies like Google and Amazon in support.

The issue looked settled after the FCC approved the measure in a 3-2 vote, with the two Republican commissioners voting against. But with Trump’s election, the fight over net neutrality is heating up.

The president-elect has tapped a trio of net neutrality critics on his FCC landing team.

Republican FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai — who many think will take over as chairman — and Mike O’Rielly have made it clear that scaling back net neutrality will be a priority for in 2017. In a December letter, they vowed to “revisit” the controversial Title II provisions, which give the FCC power over internet service providers, “as soon as possible.” Many Republican lawmakers are also eager to scale back the rule.

It’s unclear what will happen. Many experts believe the most likely outcome is the abolition of Title II. But even that would require the commission to craft a new proposed rule. And any effort to roll back the rules would likely face a court challenge.

The one certainty: with big, prominent companies on both sides, the fight is likely to drag out.


2. Set-top cable boxes

The FCC’s set top box proposal was one of the casualties of Wheeler’s agenda after Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), House Energy Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and incoming Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) urged him Wheeler to drop “controversial” items.

Internet companies have fought with cable companies over the proposal, which would force cable and satellite TV providers to open up their feeds to third party equipment providers. The measure, if approved would allow companies like Google, Tivo and Apple to compete with the TV set-top boxes cable providers rent out to customers.

The FCC’s lone, remaining Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, supports Wheeler’s proposal. But its unclear how much of a fight Clyburn can put up.

Republicans Pai and O’Rielly are not fans, and with the GOP likely to control the commission with a 3-2 split, that’s not good news for proponents of cable box reform.

Mark Jamison, a member of Trump’s landing team, has made his disdain for the measure explicit. In a post he said the “proposal would not spur more innovation nor lower prices for customers.”

The measure hasn’t passed the FCC yet so its possible a future Republican chairman could drop the ambitious plan altogether.


3. Broadband privacy

Wheeler’s new privacy rules for broadband providers were another high-profile item from his tenure.

The rules dictate that internet service providers (ISPs) must get customer permission to access sensitive information like web browsing data and app usage history.

The measures irked internet service providers who see the definition of “sensitive” data as too broad. They argue that if internet companies like Google and Amazon have easy access to this data, they should too. With a new administration, they’ll be pushing their case again, and could have some powerful new allies.

Roslyn Layton, another Trump landing team member, has blasted the privacy rules, calling them “unjustified and “misinformed.” In a post for the American Enterprise Institute, Layton hammered the rules as the result of “politics.”

It’s unclear, though, if the FCC’s Republican Commissioners would agree to scale them back.

Internet companies and consumer groups, though, are likely to keep up pressure for the rules.


4. AT&T-Time Warner merger

The $85 billion proposed merger between telecom giant AT&T and entertainment powerhouse Time Warner is already sparking heated debate.

The Justice Department will be looking into the proposed deal, but its unclear yet if the FCC will take up its own review.

The FCC’s involvement swings on whether AT&T decides to keep some of Time Warner’s television broadcasting licenses. If Time Warner decides to sell the license for its WPCH-TV channel in Atlanta, that’ll help the merger avoid FCC scrutiny. But if the companies decide to keep those licenses, the FCC will also find itself in the middle of a major fight.

The merger has attracted criticism from both sides of the aisle, with skeptics questioning if it will really benefit consumers.

Trump at a campaign rally in October said he would have blocked the merger if he was in office.

“As an example of the power structure I’m fighting, AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” Trump said. “Deals like this destroy democracy.”

But Trump’s FCC landing team members have supported mergers like the AT&T-Time Warner deal in the past. 


5. Business data services

Wheeler also hoped to pass a major reform of the market for so-called special access deals, but dropped those plans after Trump’s victory.

Many businesses, schools and hospitals rely on special access lines to quickly transmit and receive large amounts of data.

Wheeler proposed lowering the price caps on these lines for millions of customers, a proposal that predictably left service providers irked.

AT&T has hammered Wheeler’s proposal along with the Republican commissioners.

“Our goal should be ubiquitous competition, not universal rate regulation,” Pai wrote criticizing the plan. “Our guide should be the data—wherever it leads us—not an ideological drive to regulate.”

Many business groups back the changes, but could be facing an uphill fight.

Like Wheeler’s set-top box proposal, the business data reforms haven’t yet been passed, making them easy prey for a new Republican-controlled FCC.

Tags Donald Trump John Thune

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