Two questions dominate conversation in Washington’s telecom world: When will Julius leave, and who will replace him?
Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is expected to vacate the post as early as next month even though his tenure doesn’t end until the summer, according to people close to the White House and key decision makers on Capitol Hill.
And what may move that process forward is growing agreement among top government leaders on a nominee to replace him. A decision will spark a reshuffling of commissioner and senior-level seats at the agency, which oversees cable, phone and wireless providers.
Washington is putting increasing attention on the agency and high-tech sectors. Americans depend more than ever on smartphones and the Internet for education, work and entertainment. The next FCC chairman will inherit the task of distributing more airwaves to bolster wireless networks, extend Internet access to the poor and oversee what is expected to be more mergers within the industry.
The top candidates for chairman include Tom Wheeler, a tech and telecom venture capitalist and fundraiser for President Obama; Karen Kornbluh, Obama’s ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and Lawrence Strickling, an assistant secretary for Commerce and head of the White House’s tech and advisory policy arm at the Commerce Department.
Wheeler, Kornbluh and Strickling all have telecom policy chops and, importantly, all have long relationships with the president.
Wheeler, a partner at Core Capital Partners, was a fundraiser and an adviser to Obama during his 2008 election campaign. In 2011 he was named to the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board. In the telecom world, he served in 2005 as the head of the wireless industry’s biggest trade group, CTIA. He currently serves as the chairman of the FCC’s technical advisory committee, which meets throughout the year to give advice to Genachowski on key technology trends that the agency should consider.
His lobbying ties as head of the industry’s major wireless trade group have raised some concerns, according to people close to the White House and Capitol Hill. But Wheeler’s time at the CTIA was before the advent of smartphones and ubiquity of wireless services.
Kornbluh began her tenure at the OECD in August 2009. She was nominated by Obama, whom she advised during his time in the Senate and throughout his first presidential campaign. She is steeped in tech policy, having worked as a senior adviser to former Democratic FCC chairman Reed Hundt. At the OECD, she has fought over the past year against new international Internet regulations.
She may benefit from a push by some FCC veterans and Washington observers for Obama to appoint a woman.
Strickling is a Chicago native and longtime Obama friend. Since June 2009, he has served as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which manages the nation’s government and commercial airwaves. His office is charged with Internet privacy policies and oversight of how domain names are managed. Genachowski’s departure is expected to coincide with a departure by senior FCC Republican commissioner Robert McDowell. Once Senate Republican leaders find a replacement for McDowell, a package announcement on several FCC changes will occur, according to people close to the White House, Capitol Hill and FCC. Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or John Thune (R-S.D.) will probably lead the Republican Party’s consideration of candidates to replace McDowell, the observers said.
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