FCC chairman heads for the exits

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said on Friday that he will step down in the coming weeks.

In a speech to the commission's staff, Genachowski emphasized that in his four years as chairman, his top goal has been expanding broadband Internet access.

“Today, America’s broadband economy is thriving, with record-setting private investment; unparalleled innovation in networks, devices and apps; and renewed U.S. leadership around the world," Genachowski said.

As chairman, Genachowski converted a multibillion dollar telephone fund into a broadband subsidy and has moved to auction TV station frequencies to cellphone carriers to improve high-speed wireless service.

In a controversial decision, Genachowski overrode Republican opposition to enact Net neutrality regulations in late 2010. The rules require Internet service providers to treat traffic to all websites equally. The rules, a 2008 campaign promise from President Obama, are currently being challenged by Verizon in federal court.

He approved Comcast's takeover of NBC-Universal, but, along with the Justice Department, blocked AT&T's blockbuster bid to buy T-Mobile in 2011.

Genachowski often sought a middle ground between aggressive regulation and hands-off treatment of the telecommunications industry. That approach won him few admirers among the most vocal conservatives and liberals.

In a statement, consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge said Genachowski's term was one of "missed opportunities."

ADVERTISEMENT
"He had the opportunity, but declined, to solidify the agency’s authority and ability to protect consumers with regard to broadband  — the communications system of the present and future," the group said. "As a result, there is a real danger that the FCC will become a powerless and irrelevant agency as the nation’s communications networks change."

But many policy makers and advocacy groups applauded Genachowski for his efforts.

In a statement, President Obama said that due to Genachowski's leadership, the nation has "expanded high-speed Internet access, fueled growth in the mobile sector, and continued to protect the open Internet as a platform for entrepreneurship and free speech."

"I am grateful for his service and friendship, and I wish Julius the best of luck," Obama, a Harvard Law School classmate of Genachowski, said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called Genachowski a "brilliant chair" who "transformed and energized" the agency.

Michael Powell, a former Republican FCC chairman who now heads the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a cable lobbying group, thanked Genachowski for his "outstanding leadership" and applauded him for pursuing "a future-focused agenda that promoted investment in networks and services that are now delivering important societal benefits to American consumers."

Robert McDowell, a Republican FCC commissioner, announced on Wednesday that he will step down from the commission in the coming weeks. The departures will leave the agency with a 2-1 Democratic majority until the president chooses their successors.  

The White House often nominates a Republican and Democratic commissioner as a pair to help ease confirmation through the Senate.

Potential candidates to succeed Genachowski include venture capitalist Tom Wheeler; Karen Kornbluh, ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and Larry Strickling, the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.