Michael K. Powell yesterday said he would step down as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, ending an often-rocky tenure dominated by swift changes in the media and telecommunications landscape and fights over indecency on the public airwaves.
Once a bureaucratic backwater chiefly in charge of handing out television and radio licenses, the FCC is now a pivotal agency, its obligations and impact expanding with the technological revolution. As chairman, Powell steered the FCC on a largely deregulatory path, believing that such a philosophy would speed new gadgets and services -- such as next-generation cell phones and Internet phone service -- to the public.
Outgoing FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell cited keeping Internet phone service from regulation as a victory.
(Mike Blake -- Reuters)
The past four years has been a period of remarkable change on that digital frontier: Cable giant Comcast Corp. entered the consumer phone business while AT&T Corp. began pulling out, phone service came to the Internet, digital television and satellite radio appeared in stores, and cell phones become a ubiquitous necessity.
At the same time, the agency under Powell became a cultural force, responding to an unparalleled number of complaints about the coarsening nature of radio and television broadcasts with a fusillade of proposed fines -- more than $8.5 million during his four years as chairman.
Powell cut a polarizing figure, criticized in some quarters as a friend of big business but praised as a visionary in others.
"I have a vision that's about technology that empowers consumers over institutions," Powell said in an interview yesterday. "I felt we had largely accomplished our agenda."
The son of outgoing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, he said he plans to leave the agency in March. Powell, 41, said he does not have another job offer and has not interviewed with or been contacted by another employer.
"It's logical to leave between administrations if you're not really interested in staying" the entire second term, he said.
Powell's exit begins a transition in agency leadership. A likely successor is Republican FCC Commissioner Kevin J. Martin, who has sometimes clashed with Powell on policy. Martin's wife, Catherine, is an adviser to Vice President Cheney, and both have friends in the administration. If Martin ascends to the chairmanship, potential candidates to fill the vacancy include former Texas Public Utility Commission chairman Rebecca Armendariz Klein; National Telecommunications and Information Administration head Michael D. Gallagher, a former Verizon Wireless lobbyist; and Earl W. Comstock, former chief counsel to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), according to industry observers and people close to the FCC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision is not yet final. Martin declined to comment yesterday on a possible appointment.
The commission's other remaining Republican is Kathleen Q. Abernathy, a close ally of Powell's. Her term expired in June, though she received an extension. She has not sought renomination and has privately told some that she would like to leave the FCC this year. Democrat Michael J. Copps's term expires in May, though he seeks another. Only fellow Democrat Jonathan S. Adelstein, who was reappointed in December, is settled on the five-member commission, which traditionally includes three members from the party that controls the White House.