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With Trump on the horizon, the FCC signals it may not pass any more big rules

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission is signaling that it may not be passing any more controversial rules this year, in acknowledgment that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump could take things in a very different direction next year.

The decision could mark the end of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's policymaking tenure. Although a number of contested policy proposals remain on “circulation,” meaning they could technically be voted upon and approved at any time, the agency on Wednesday removed several from its agenda for its next monthly meeting, scheduled for Thursday morning. That meeting will still move forward, and a final meeting is scheduled for mid-December.

The last-minute deletions reflect a decision by Wheeler to heed pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) urged the FCC on Tuesday to stop work on “complex, partisan, or otherwise controversial items.” Joining Thune were Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), along with the FCC's Republican commissioners.

“In light of the congressional letters we received, we have revised the meeting agenda,” the FCC said in a statement.

Until this week, the FCC appeared to be barreling ahead with its agenda despite the looming transition in power. Last week, it told AT&T that it had “serious concerns” over the company's practice of exempting a service that it owns, DirecTV Now, from customer data caps — raising questions about whether the tactic unfairly hurt DirecTV's competitors.

Among the items removed from Thursday's meeting agenda was a proceeding that would apply new rules to the data connections businesses and institutions buy from telecommunications providers such as AT&T and Verizon. This $45 billion-a-year industry powers ATMs, credit-card readers and other common transactions consumers make every day. Some legacy telecom companies had vigorously opposed the deal, and a trade group for the industry on Wednesday said it was “pleased” the FCC had put the proposal on ice.

Wheeler had personally led an effort to pass some of the most sweeping — and politically divisive — policies of the 21st century. Under his watch, the FCC approved strict new rules for Internet providers that banned them from blocking or slowing consumers' access to websites. Last month, he shepherded through a measure to force broadband companies to honor customer privacy; the policy mandates that consumers should be allowed to opt out of having their personal data used for advertising purposes.

But Trump's election puts fate of those policies in doubt. Policy analysts widely expect Trump and his Republican allies in Congress to attempt to roll back Wheeler's regulations on net neutrality, privacy and possibly other issues. On Wednesday, a top adviser to Wheeler, Gigi Sohn, announced she was departing the agency, another move that suggested the FCC was wrapping things up.

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Consumer advocates expressed dismay at the seemingly abrupt end of Wheeler's bid to force competition into the rapidly consolidating telecom and media industry.

“I am profoundly disappointed,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge.

Republicans say it is customary for an outgoing FCC to halt work in the weeks between Election Day and the inauguration of a new administration.

“The curtain has fallen on Chairman Wheeler's policymaking tenure,” said Robert McDowell, a Republican who served as an FCC commissioner from 2006 to 2013.