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FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s departure is the death knell for net neutrality

The FCC will now have a Republican majority.

Federal Communications Commission Set To Vote On Net Neutrality Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler announced this morning that he will leave the agency on Jan. 20 when President-elect Trump is inaugurated.

Wheeler’s departure likely spells the end of network neutrality, a set of rules the FCC adopted under Wheeler’s leadership in 2015 which prevent internet providers like Comcast* and Verizon from charging websites like Netflix and Twitter a fee to reach internet users at faster speeds.

Wheeler is the second Democratic FCC commissioner to leave the agency in the past week. Last Friday, the Senate failed to reconfirm Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Until the incoming Trump administration picks a new chairman and a new commissioner, the FCC will be led by two Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, and one Democrat, Mignon Clyburn.

Next year, Trump will appoint a new Republican chairman. Considering who Trump has on hand to advise the FCC transition and Trump’s own opposition to network neutrality, the new agency chief is expected to roll back the 2015 rules.

Without network neutrality, smaller or new online businesses that can’t afford to pay for a faster service tier — especially if websites that are already extremely profitable, like Facebook, get to set the price — would load slower, likely causing users to navigate away to a faster-loading site.

Yet the large, incumbent websites that would be able to afford to pay internet providers for faster speeds supported network neutrality, too.

Netflix poured millions into the campaign to urge the FCC to pass the regulations, and others like Facebook, Google and KickStarter all also vocally supported network neutrality protections.

Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, on the other hand, were all opposed to the network neutrality regulations and are likely to now get their way.

Shortly after the election, Trump named Jeff Eisenach and Mark Jamison to help advise his FCC transition, both fierce opponents of network neutrality. Then two weeks ago, Trump added Roslyn Layton to his his FCC advisory team, too.

Layton likewise advocated against the network neutrality rules and is a fan of zero-rating, which is when internet providers privilege certain websites and content by not counting them against your data use. Layton also opposed the recent FCC decision to prevent internet providers from collecting subscriber data without consent.

A record-breaking four million people commented in favor of network neutrality in the FCC’s policy-making process — the highest amount of public participation in the history of the agency.

* Comcast’s NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.

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