Deadlocked FCC could mean the death of net neutrality

An FCC with an equal number of Democrat and Republican representatives could be a very bad thing for consumers, because it won't be able to finally do away with the set-top box, stop the AT&T and Time Warner merger, or continue to defend net neutrality.

(Editor's note: One day after this post was published, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that he will resign from the commission in January.)

I don't often write about politics in this blog, but some recent under-the-radar moves in the Senate have the potential to affect every consumer who uses the Internet. By the end of this month, the U.S. FCC will be evenly divided between two Democrat and two Republican representatives, a recipe for paralysis.

The split commission will not be able to:

Even more unfortunately, network neutrality, which took years to enact, will likely die a sad death — though that won't happen until next year, when the incoming Trump administration fills the vacancy on the commission with another Republican.

Deadlocked FCC and net neutrality

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler offered to resign if the Senate would confirm Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat whose five-year term expires at the end of this month. The Senate didn't even vote on Rosenworcel's appointment, however, so the FCC will likely see a 2-2 division on any controversial issues that come before it.

Net neutrality stops providers from favoring one type of content or service over another. Without net neutrality, a company that owns content, such as AT&T when it swallows Time Warner, could give its own programming a so-called "fast lane," while competitors such as Netflix are slowed or charged a premium for the delivery of their content to AT&T's DirecTV subscribers.

President-elect Donald Trump already spoke out against net neutrality, and Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said "its days are numbered." Pai, who has opposed many of the FCC's pro-consumer regulations, also said last week that “[w]e need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation."

FCC Chairman Wheeler has been trying to free consumers from the constraints of the set-top box for some time. The last time the issue came before the commission it was tabled because Rosenworcel, who supports the idea in principle, thought the proposal was flawed. It was likely to come before the commission again, but given today's heavy lobbying by cable companies, the chances of real reform are remote, even nonexistent.

Wheeler's days on the commission are numbered, as well. His term doesn't expire until 2018, but Pai will likely become the new chairman before then, and it isn't clear if Wheeler will remain as a minority commissioner.

It's disheartening to see hard-won reforms reversed — millions of consumers emailed the FCC in support of net neutrality — but the fact is, presidential elections have consequences.

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