FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski as Expected Steps Aside: Who Will Succeed Him?

By Peter Bernstein March 22, 2013

It is and always has been hard to keep a secret in Washington, D.C. It came as no surprise that the speculation kicked off early in the week by the resignation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Robert McDowell that Chairman Julius Genachowski would quickly follow with a departure of his own. At a meeting with his staff this morning he confirmed his intentions and said he will be leaving in the coming weeks. 

As noted in the McDowell article, this is no coincidence. Having a twofer confirmation process, once successors for the open positions are put forth, means that the contentiousness that might occur with only one post being filled can be avoided and the FCC, with a host of hot topics on its plate, can quickly be at full strength.

The end of an era?

It is customary when there is such a significant shift in major policy making positions for people to write post-mortems on the regime that is coming to a close. And, despite the fact that the Genachowski tenure as Chairman has been as described almost universally as “tumultuous” it remains to be seen how much of a real policy shift occurs with a reconstituted FCC. After all, reality is the new Commission will still have a 3-2 Democratic majority, and it is hard to imagine that a new chairman will deviate very far from policies that are important to the Obama administration. 

That said, the Genachowski legacy marks a time when issues that will in many ways determine winners and losers for the next several years were decided. Under his leadership, the agency was forced to not just look at, but act on such important matters as the death of the PSTN and the broad implications this will have on making broadband ubiquitous, which led to the first major overhaul of the Universal Service Fund. He also managed to get adopted extremely controversial network neutrality rules, and has been a champion of various initiatives to close the “digital divide” and make the FCC more transparent and consumer friendly. 

In addition, Genachowski has been an advocate of innovation and has been on the lookout for ways the FCC could better manage the radio spectrum, including his push for incentive auctions that would move some TV broadcasters off their channels and open them up for advanced, high-speed services. In fact, only yesterday he sent NTIA a notice to free up more bandwidth in spectrum that is used for military and commercial services to make way for new capabilities.

Telecom and mobile were not the only challenges during his time of service. The FCC oversaw the approval of the Comcast/NBC-Universal deal, approved Verizon’s purchase the wireless licenses held by a consortium of cable companies, helped promote what is becoming the seemly universal availability of Wi-Fi, was influential in the recent T-Mobile acquisition of a controlling stake in MetroPCS, and was at the helm when the AT&T purchase of T-Mobile was quashed over strenuous objections by Republicans on the FCC and in Congress. 

The above are just some highlights. For aficionados, the list of other critical FCC decisions regarding the regulation or lack thereof of such things as the Internet, privacy concerns, media convergence and restructuring, federal-state jurisdictional challenges, what constitutes common carriage versus an information service is long. And, as was observed in my previous article, many of the decisions of the Genachowski era a still awaiting closure due to numerous court challenges on virtually anything and everything the FCC does because in the end somebody’s ox has been gored.

As a result of the Genachowski departure, the list of possible successors is growing. Joining Tom Wheeler ,Core Capital Partners Managing Director; Karen Kornbluh, President Obama’s ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and  assistant secretary for Commerce and head of the White House’s tech and advisory policy arm at the Commerce Department, Lawrence Strickling on the rumor list are current Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, and Blair Levin, former FCC chief of staff and primary author of the commission's National Broadband Plan. 

It should also be noted that speculation on the McDowell successor includes Ray Baum, a senior aide to Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), and Neil Fried, senior telecommunications counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Let the games begin

Again, as noted, whether new faces will cause a major shift in policy is problematic at best. Since there was no administration change, the balance of voting power on the FCC has not shifted, and whoever fills the respective opening is going to have to run the gauntlet of the nomination process. 

That said, it will be fascinating to see how deep the questioning goes on policy issues during the hearings on nominees and how contentious the Senators of the two parties wish to make all of this. It should be a great show. A lot has been invested in lobbying campaigns over the years by all of the various industries over which the FCC has jurisdiction and by consumer advocates, and in this brave new world where players such as Google, Apple and Facebook have joined the fray the theatrical elements of all of this will make for good television. One can only hope that down the road it makes for good policy as well.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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