By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; A17
Colin Crowell's fingerprints are all over some of the biggest technology and telecommunications statutes of the last two decades. He's one of the most influential tech policy operatives you've never heard of.
Such is the playbook of Washington, where staff on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies act as powerful agents crafting laws and regulations behind the scenes -- a place where Crowell has happily sat watching the epic transformation of communications law for the Internet age.
After serving as senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and 20 years as a lead staffer for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the former chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, Crowell, 44, is preparing to join the ranks of the industry he has helped oversee.
The impending transition is another big part of the Washington playbook: the revolving door, in which some Hill staffers and lawmakers leave public service for the private sector -- sometimes eventually returning to the Hill or an administration.
"Ed Markey, who is a legislative giant in the telecom world, gave me a front-row seat 20 years ago to the changes that would unfold in technology and to the laws that needed updating, and that was a great gift," Crowell said. "I feel now is the right time for a change, a chance for me to do something new and different."
Several developments have converged to make it the right time, Crowell said. Markey is no longer committee chairman and Washington's partisan environment has become more challenging, he said.
Still, some who know Crowell will watch the transition with interest. "Colin has always been committed to taking on communications colossi to provide competition that protected consumers," said Markey, who along with many in the FCC call his former staffer a walking encyclopedia on the arcane details of tech and telecom statutes.
The FCC said Crowell would leave in June, after advising chairman Julius Genachowski on the rollout of a plan to significantly expand high-speed Internet connections across the nation and a proposed rule to open Internet networks to all Web sites and applications.
He had intended to stay until the broadband plan was announced last March, the agency said. He stayed a few months longer to address an unexpected court decision that challenged the agency's ability to regulate a broadband service network. Crowell won't look for a job until he leaves the FCC.
He and Markey put the broadband plan into the Recovery Act, and charged the FCC with figuring out how to execute it -- within a year. Crowell moved to the FCC with Genachowski to help make it happen.
Within the Beltway's clubby tech policy circles, Crowell has been a fixture whom lobbyists for companies such as Google, AT&T and Comcast have tried to influence. Corporations have made knowing him a priority, because for years his onetime boss took on industry giants, often siding with smaller competitors.
Crowell helped Markey write the Telecom Act of 1996 -- which pitted satellite providers against their cable counterparts and spawned thousands of competitors among phone, video and Internet service providers.
But the landscape has changed, and many areas of the country offer only one or two choices for broadband Internet service providers.
Four years ago, Crowell helped Markey write a net neutrality bill that would force carriers to provide equal access to any Web pages and applications. That bill hasn't moved but Crowell is working on a similar proposal at the FCC, along with a controversial proposal to redefine the largely unregulated broadband industry as a telecommunications service. Doing so would clear the way for net neutrality rules.
It could be a bumpy transition as Crowell shifts roles from public servant -- and Markey's wingman -- to the private sector. Besides his short FCC stint, and two years immediately after college spent as a Jesuit volunteer in Peru, working for Markey is the only job Crowell has had. And until recently, he was not known for expressing interest in the private sector.
"The hardest thing about joining the private sector is being a supplicant, after years and years of people coming to you for advice," said Larry Irving, vice president of global government affairs for Hewlett-Packard, who worked alongside Crowell in Markey's office and later became the assistant secretary for commerce. Markey's office has also produced several leaders on K Street and in the federal government. Gerry Waldron, a partner at Covington & Burling, Gerry Salemme, a telecom venture capitalist, and Larry Sidman, former president of the Association of Public Television Stations, were all staffers in the 1980s and '90s.
Crowell stayed, building a career as a deal broker, and helping, for example, to pass the Telecom Act under a Republican majority.
David Cavicke, the Republican chief of staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has been on the opposite side of Crowell on issues. "We may not agree on everything, but because he is so willing to provide advice and counsel and understands the nuances of the issues so well, he's been a leading figure in the middle of developing compromise," Cavicke said of Crowell.
But tech policy issues have become more partisan, Crowell said. "In the long term, no serious tech policy can succeed with a highly charged partisan strategy," he said. "At their core, high-tech issues are more regional in nature or are simply too complex to split conveniently down a party divide."