FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Stepping Down After Contentious Term

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John Gress / REUTERS

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski pauses as he speaks at the Cable Show in Chicago, June 15, 2011.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski is stepping down, he announced Friday. Genachowski, who became chairman in 2009, has presided over an agency that has grappled with contentious issues like U.S. broadband policy, cable and telecom industry competition, and media consolidation.

In seeking to strike a centrist balance, Genachowski managed to alienate both public interest groups that have pushed for a more activist FCC on issues like media ownership and Internet openness, as well as industry giants, particularly AT&T, which had proposed buying T-Mobile before the FCC objected. Verizon Wireless is currently suing the FCC in federal court over the agency’s “network neutrality” rules.

Genachowski’s announcement, which was expected, comes just days after another FCC commissioner, Robert McDowell, announced his plan to leave the agency. Their departures create two vacancies on the commission, which will be filled by candidates nominated by President Obama. The job of FCC chairman is particularly important, because the position wields significant power in shaping U.S. telecom regulatory policy. A spokesman for the FCC’s office of the chairman declined to comment on the reports of Genachowski’s impending departure, but Reuters reported that he informed his staff of his decision on Thursday.

(MOREAs FCC Chief’s Term Nears End, Speculation Grows Over Possible Successor)

Genachowski, a former Internet executive at media mogul Barry Diller’s IAC conglomerate, attended Harvard Law School with President Obama and later raised money for Obama. When he was appointed, public interest groups were optimistic that he would champion the open Internet principles at the heart of “network neutrality,” the idea that Internet providers shouldn’t discriminate against rival services. But public interest groups were dismayed when Genachowski ultimately settled on a compromise originally crafted by Google and Verizon Wireless, which ensured net neutrality on wired networks, but did not extend the principle to wireless networks.

“When Julius Genachowski took office, there were high hopes that he would use his powerful position to promote the public interest,” Craig Aaron, president and CEO of public interest group Free Press, said in a statement. “But instead of acting as the people’s champion, he’s catered to corporate interests. He claimed to be a staunch defender of the open Internet, but his Net Neutrality policies are full of loopholes and offer no guarantee that the FCC will be able to protect consumers from corporate abuse in the future.”

It’s easy to take the idea of net neutrality for granted, but all Web users and companies have equal access to the Internet, in the same way that all Americans have the right to travel anywhere in the 50 states without a passport. Companies and institutions have closed networks, but the main public internet is accessible by all. Without this open access, net neutrality advocates argue, startups like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of others could never have emerged to become the commercial and communications powerhouses they are today.

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Genachowski also infuriated public interest groups with his decision to approve Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, which critics said concentrated too much power with one company. “Though President Obama promised his FCC chairman would not continue the Bush administration’s failed media ownership policies, Genachowski offered the exact same broken ideas that Bush’s two chairmen pushed,” Aaron said. “He never faced the public and ignored the overwhelming opposition to his plans.”

Last month, TIME published the short-list of possible successors, based on a dozen interviews with D.C. policy experts and insiders. The front-runner is currently Tom Wheeler, a veteran telecom policy expert and entrepreneur who had been an influential lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries earlier in his career. Another top candidate is Karen Kornbluh, a former FCC official who is currently President Obama’s Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Other possible candidates include Larry Strickling, another former FCC official who is currently Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the executive branch agency that advises the president on telecom policy. Cathy Sandoval, a lawyer and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, has also been mentioned, as has Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo School of Law. Crawford, the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age, is a favorite of public interest groups, but she’s considered a long shot.

(MOREComcast’s NBCUniversal Deal: As One Media Era Ends, Another Begins)

The next FCC chairman will confront several thorny issues. The agency is currently weighing new rules about media ownership, and preparing for a complex wireless spectrum auction next year. Meanwhile, the FCC faces a closely watched legal challenge over its authority to enforce the “Open Internet” rules that are at the basis of net neutrality. In the lawsuit, telecom giant Verizon claims that the FCC overstepped its legal authority to enforce its own rules. The outcome of the case could have major implications for the FCC’s power to regulate broadband internet service.

“There is a real danger that the FCC will become a powerless and irrelevant agency as the nation’s communications networks change,” DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge said in a statement. “We urge the President to appoint a new FCC Chair who will put the public interest first, and who will restore the agency’s ability to protect the values so critical to our communications system and to our democracy — service to all Americans, openness, competition and diversity.”