FCC's Genachowski to step down; Clyburn, Wheeler, Strickling floated as replacements

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said he still step down from his post in the coming weeks after nearly four years as the chief of the commission. His announcement ends months of speculation about if or when he would depart and comes just days after his colleague, Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, said he will also resign in the next few weeks.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski


Genachowski made the announcement this morning at an FCC staff meeting in Washington, D.C. No immediate successor was named, though Washington has been engaging in a parlor game for weeks over who might take over as the next FCC head.

"Over the past four years, we've focused the FCC on broadband, wired and wireless, working to drive economic growth and improve the lives of all Americans," he said. "And thanks to you, the commission's employees, we've taken big steps to build a future where broadband is ubiquitous and bandwidth is abundant, where innovation and investment are flourishing."

Genachowski's tenure was dominated by a focus on expanding broadband access, both for wireless and wired networks. The FCC completed a national broadband plan in 2010 that explicitly called for freeing up 300 MHz of spectrum by 2015 and 500 MHz by 2020. Genachowski said last October that the FCC was on track to hit the 2015 goal.

Genachowski's departure, coupled with McDowell's decision to step down, will allow President Obama to nominate a Democrat and a Republican to fill their spots on the five-member commission, which analysts have said likely will make it easier for them to get confirmed by the Senate. There are many names that have been bandied about as replacements for Genachowski, including current Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel. Additionally, other possibilities include former CTIA president and venture capitalist Tom Wheeler; Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and Blair Levin, a former FCC staff member who led the effort to craft the broadband plan.

Although Genachowski noted that the commission he led voted on a bipartisan basis 95 percent of the time, there were also sharp disagreements over certain aspects of regulatory policy. The FCC was split along party lines on whether to codify net neutrality rules for wireless and wired networks, and ultimately voted to do. The rules went light on wireless carriers but have nonetheless been challenged in federal court. The commission was also divided on imposing mandatory data roaming for carriers--a federal appeals court upheld the data FCC's rules in December.

However, Genachowski reached bipartisan consensus to increase the amount of wireless spectrum available for mobile broadband. One of his key accomplishments was setting in motion the process for incentive auctions of broadcast TV spectrum in the 600 MHz band, which are scheduled to start next year. Under Genachowski, the FCC also allowed Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) to obtain nationwide AWS spectrum holdings from a group of cable companies and set up reseller agreements with them.

Yet the FCC's biggest decision from a competition perspective under Genachowski may wind up being its opposition to AT&T's proposed $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile USA. The agency generally rejected AT&T's argument that the transaction would result in a more competitive market. In the wake of AT&T's failed attempt to purchase T-Mobile, T-Mobile decided to pursue a merger with prepaid carrier MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS). Separately, Japanese operator Softbank is working to buy 70 percent of Sprint for $20.1 billion.

After announcing its plans to step down, Genachowski received widespread praise from wireless players. Summed CTIA President Steve Largent: "Julius recognized early on the benefits of mobile broadband and made it a priority to deliver additional, cleared spectrum to meet consumer demand and maintain U.S. global leadership."

Others, however, were more critical. "For those of us who represent the public, Chairman Genachowski's term can best be described as one of missed opportunities," public interest group Public Knowledge said in a statement. "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. 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."

For more:
- see this release
- see this Politico article
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this Reuters article

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