Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said he'll leave office Jan. 20 as Donald Trump is sworn in as U.S. president and the agency passes into the hands of Republicans hostile to regulations passed by Democrats including the net-neutrality rule.
"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," Mr. Wheeler said in a statement.
The departure of Mr. Wheeler, a Democrat, will set the commission up for a 2-1 majority of Republicans eager to begin pruning. "We need to fire up the weed whacker," Ajit Pai, the agency's senior Republican who may become acting chairman upon Mr. Wheeler's departure, said in a Dec. 7 speech.
Rules at risk include the net-neutrality regulation passed by Democrats in 2015 at President Barack Obama's urging, which limits how internet service providers led by AT&T and Comcast Corp. handle web traffic. Other targets include privacy rules imposing obligations on carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications, and ownership rules that restrict TV-station combinations by companies such as Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Mr. Wheeler, 70, could have chosen to remain a commissioner, without the presidential designation as chairman, until his term runs out in 2018.
His departure will leave three seats to be filled by candidates nominated by Mr. Trump and confirmed by the Senate: a Republican to give the party a third seat on the five-member panel, and Democrats to replace Mr. Wheeler and Jessica Rosenworcel, who didn't win confirmation to a second term before the Senate adjourned last week.
It's unclear whether the agency will take up AT&T's proposed $85.4 billion purchase of HBO and CNN owner Time Warner. The companies are assessing whether to retain the FCC licenses that would give the agency jurisdiction over the deal, AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said at a congressional hearing on Dec. 7.
Mr. Trump hasn't said who he's considering to lead the agency, which assesses mergers in the communications industry and regulates cable, wireless and broadcast companies. The FCC employs about 1,650 people and requested a budget of $358 million for fiscal 2017, down 7% from 2016.