By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2005
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.
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.
Powell's time as chairman probably will be most remembered for the agency's campaign against broadcast indecency, which gained momentum after singer Janet Jackson's breast was briefly exposed during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl. The incident caused a national stir and compelled Powell to launch an indecency investigation of CBS, which aired the event.
During his nationally syndicated radio show yesterday, Howard Stern bragged that no one would know who Powell is if not for him. For more than a year, Stern, who is employed by Viacom Inc.'s Infinity Broadcasting Corp., has railed against Powell and the FCC for the crackdown on indecency. In October, Stern announced that he plans to leave over-the-air radio when his contract expires in January 2006 for Sirius Satellite Radio, a subscription service outside the control of FCC decency regulations.
Beyond the indecency battle, Powell oversaw a number of significant policy moves: notably, the digital-television transition, the rollout of advanced Internet capabilities and the radical redrawing of the telephone landscape. An admitted gadget geek, Powell pushed for the rapid expansion of cell phone and wireless communications networks, calling them tools of democracy.
He also was at the center of a 2003 fight over new media ownership rules that attempted to loosen some rules governing the size and reach of companies while tightening others.
Powell expressed greater satisfaction over other, less controversial decisions, such as the agency's speedy action to spare Internet phone service from rigorous regulation. "It's really cool that you can go to Best Buy tomorrow and buy telephone service off the shelf," he said. "One year ago, you almost never heard of it. [Internet telephone service] . . . goes to the very core of telephone service; it's not some cutesy music download program."
Reaction to Powell's exit yesterday was split. Some lauded his administration while others expressed delight at its end.
"Chairman Michael Powell has spent the last eight years revolutionizing the telecommunications industry by championing new technologies and advocating competition," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a written statement. "Under his stewardship, the Commission's deregulatory decisions have increased investment in the telecommunications sector, allowing this segment of the economy to grow exponentially."
Robert W. McChesney, a critic of the corporate media and a Powell adversary, said: "His tenure was marked by some of the lowest moments in the history of the FCC. . . . Powell's record has been one of avoiding the public he was meant to serve. He had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the few public hearings he attended, yet he made countless appearances before industry groups and trade associations."
Powell, a telecommunications lawyer, is a former Army officer who left the service after suffering a near-fatal injury in a 1987 training exercise. He was appointed to the FCC by President Bill Clinton in 1997. After George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, Powell was elevated to the chair the agency.
During his tenure, Powell was criticized by the FCC's two Democratic commissioners and a variety of organizations and advocacy groups for allowing Big Media to grow even bigger. Eventually, the Republican-led Congress took one of the rules -- determining how many stations a television network can own -- out of the FCC's hands and fixed the limits in law. The rest of the rules were put on hold by a federal court, pending review. "I'm not nearly as disappointed about media ownership," he said yesterday. "It really wasn't one of my priorities."
Powell also rejected criticism that the agency favored big business, saying the FCC had approved rules over industry objections allowing consumers to keep their phone numbers when they changed providers and also backed a do-not-call list aimed at curbing telemarketing.
Under Powell, the FCC approved some big mergers, such as the combination last year of Cingular Wireless LLC and AT&T Wireless Services Inc.
But Powell also blocked a merger he felt would harm consumers -- EchoStar Communications Corp.'s 2002 attempt to buy Hughes Electronics Corp.'s DirecTV business, combining it with EchoStar's Dish Network service. Powell said the union would have eliminated competition between the nation's only two major satellite services and eventually drive up subscription prices. It was the first major merger blocked by the FCC in the past 30 years.
Staff writer Yuki Noguchi contributed to this report.