FCC Chairman Powell to Resign

WASHINGTON -- Michael Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for the past four years, announced last week he will resign, effective sometime in March.

Powell, a Republican who championed telecommunications deregulation, sent a letter of resignation to U.S. President George Bush on Friday, saying his resignation comes with a "mixture of pride and regret."

"Having completed a bold and aggressive agenda, it is time for me to pursue other opportunities and let someone else take the reins of the agency," Powell says in a statement. "During my tenure, we worked to get the law right in order to stimulate innovative technology that puts more power in the hands of the American people, giving them greater choices that enrich their lives."

Powell's main regret, he says, was no longer "working shoulder to shoulder with the most talented and dedicated staff and colleagues that I have known."

Bush has the responsibility of nominating a new commissioner and a new FCC chair to replace Powell. Bush's choice for a new commissioner must be approved by the U.S. Senate. Powell, appointed to the FCC by former President Bill Clinton in November 1997, was named chairman by Bush in January 2001.

Looking at His Legacy

Powell's resignation prompted a mix of reaction from technology and telecommunications companies, trade groups, and think tanks. Organizations such as the United States Telecom Association and the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a free-market-oriented think tank, praised Powell's efforts to remove regulation from the telecom industry.

During his tenure, Powell pushed the commission to scrap many of the rules requiring incumbent telephone carriers--often called the regional Bells--to share parts of their networks with competing carriers. As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the U.S. Congress set up the sharing framework in which the Bells, which inherited much of their networks after the breakup of the old AT&T government-sanctioned monopoly in the 1980s.

Powell will be remembered for his "forward-looking approach and his strong efforts to drag government policy into the next century," says Tom Tauke, executive vice president of public affairs and communications at Verizon Communications, in a statement. Verizon is one of the four regional Bells.

Powell argued that market forces, and not the government, should determine the competitive landscape of the telecom industry, but he also pushed the FCC to get more involved in areas such as policing indecency on television and radio airwaves. While Powell wasn't a complete free-market advocate, his policies did encourage private companies to invest in new Internet and telecom technologies, says Kyle Dixon, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation.

"He really has a love for the technology and an understanding that the technology has economic benefits for consumers," says Dixon, a former legal advisor to Powell. "He understood that changes are going to happen through private sector innovation."

Steve Largent, president and chief executive officer of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, praises Powell for his "obvious and contagious passion for new technology." Consumers were Powell's top priority, Largent says in a statement.

In November, the Powell-lead FCC ruled that voice over Internet Protocol carriers were exempt from most state regulation and taxes. Powell argued that VoIP will give consumers a new telecom choice, resulting in lower prices and better service.

Favoring Large Companies?

Others, including some consumer and technology groups, faulted Powell for pushing policies favoring large companies, particularly large incumbent telecom carriers, to the detriment of competition. Bell competitors, collectively known as competitive local exchange carriers or CLECs, have complained that the FCC's moves away from the earlier network-sharing rules limit consumer choice.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a trade group representing about 500 technology companies, says consumer choices contracted during Powell's tenure. "Though Chairman Powell has been an advocate for allowing new technologies to come to market, he leaves a far more consolidated communications marketplace than when he began," ITAA President Harris Miller says in a statement. "Business users and consumers have fewer alternatives because of his policies. Assuring affordable access to innovative services and applications over the resulting bottleneck networks will be a significant challenge."

Powell encouraged companies to experiment with unlicensed radio spectrum, leading to broad adoption of Wi-Fi, but the rest of Powell's time at the FCC was "mostly negative," says Michael Calabrese, vice president and director of spectrum policy at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank focusing on technology and other public policy issues.

"He has pushed hard to end the open, free flow of content and applications over the Internet, claiming falsely that this is the incentive cable and telephone companies need to invest in broadband deployment," Calabrese says in a statement. "Although it would be hard to do worse than Michael Powell, we can only hope that his successor is someone who can persuade the White House that the U.S. is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in affordable broadband deployment."

During Powell's tenure as chairman, the FCC:

  • Declared cable modem Internet service an "information service" that's minimally regulated;
  • Ended network-sharing rules for several high-speed fiber networks, in an effort to promote broadband, including new fiber deployment, fiber to the curb, and fiber to apartment buildings;
  • Adopted new rules intended to minimize regulations for broadband over power lines;
  • Gave consumers the option of avoiding telemarketing calls through the national Do Not Call registry;
  • Let Americans keep their cellular numbers when they change carriers.
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