By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler plans to step down on Jan. 20, he said on Thursday, a move expected to hand Republicans a 2-1 majority on the panel when Donald Trump takes office as president.
Wheeler could have kept the commission at 2-2 until Trump names a new member who needs to be confirmed by the Senate. Last week, two Republican FCC commissioners said the Trump administration should quickly reverse many significant policies set by the telecommunications and cable regulatory body under Democratic President Barack Obama.
Unless the U.S. Senate reconfirms Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, she will have to leave at end of the month. Senate Democrats on Thursday held out the possibility that Republicans could put her back on the FCC next year.
With the departures of Wheeler and Rosenworcel, the only remaining Democrat on the panel would be Mignon Clyburn, whose term does not expire until June 2017.
Trump will get to select the next chairman.
Wheeler, a former cable TV and mobile phone industry lobbyist, repeatedly clashed with companies during his tenure at the FCC, especially over the 2015 order to reclassify broadband internet service providers under a section of communications law that treats them more like public utilities and subjects them to stricter regulation as part of the commission's "net neutrality" rules.
The rules bar broadband providers from giving or selling access to speedy internet, essentially a "fast lane" on the information superhighway, to certain services over others.
Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, said last week he believed the net neutrality rules' "days are numbered." He also said he hoped the commission would eliminate many regulations and propose fewer actions.
Wheeler also scrutinized a series of proposed mergers, demanding significant conditions to some and rejecting others. In 2015, Wheeler blocked Comcast Corp's proposed $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and said the FCC had serious concerns about allowing a tie-up of Sprint Corp and T-Mobile US. Republican Commissioner Mike O'Rielly said last week that the FCC under Trump needed to "undo the more harmful policies adopted by the current commission." O'Rielly criticized the FCC's decision in October to impose stricter privacy rules on internet service providers than on websites like Facebook Inc or Twitter Inc. Last month Wheeler dropped plans to push through a proposed reform of the $45 billion business data services market. He also dropped a plan to allow pay TV subscribers to ditch their set-top boxes.
Former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, a partner at Carlyle Group LP, said Wheeler "fought relentlessly for broadband, competition and consumers, and our country's innovation economy today is strong and world-leading."
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Von Ahn)