FCC Chairman Plans to Leave Post Early By Jube Shiver The Los Angeles Times Staff Writer WASHINGTON — Michael K. Powell, the controversial head of the Federal Communications Commission who championed speedier Internet connections, tougher enforcement of broadcast indecency rules and greater consumer protection from telemarketers, announced today that he is leaving the agency in March. Powell, a 41-year-old former Army officer and antitrust lawyer who was appointed chairman in 2001 by President Bush, sent a letter to Bush today indicating his intentions to leave. Powell, who struggled during his tenure as chairman to loosen government restrictions on media and telephone companies, did not elaborate on his plans. "Having completed a bold and aggressive agenda, it is time for me to pursue other opportunities and let someone else take the reins of the agency," Powell said in the statement. "During my tenure, we worked to get the law right in order to stimulate innovative technology that puts more power in the hands of the American people, giving them greater choices that enrich their lives. Evidence of our success can be seen increasingly in the offices, the automobiles and the living rooms of the American consumer." Washington has been whispering about Powell leaving the FCC since February 2003, when the soft-spoken but strong-willed official suffered an embarrassing defeat over telephone competition rules. Last March he lost a 3-2 FCC vote on his bid to change telephone competition. Three months later, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia blocked the FCC from implementing media ownership rules that would have allowed a company or individual to own TV stations reaching 45% of the national audience, up from 35%. The new rules also would permit ownership of a newspaper and TV or radio station in a market and as many as three TV stations in big cities. "He's been the most deregulatory-minded chairman we've seen in recent memory," said Scott Cleland, chief executive of Washington researcher Precursor, which follows communications and media policy. "It's unlikely whoever will replace him will be anywhere near as deregulatory." The FCC chairman has received praise from many executives for freeing the communications industry from government red tape. However, consumer groups have criticized Powell for attempting to allow media giants to grow bigger and for moving too slowly to crack down on indecency on the airwaves. "Michael Powell will not be missed by those of us concerned about creating a more democratic media system," said Robert W. McChesney, founder and president of the nonpartisan media reform group Free Press, in Northampton, Mass. "His tenure was marked by some of the lowest moments in the history of the FCC — most notably the disastrous decision in June 2003 to further loosen media ownership rules." Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who is also leaving his post, overcame objections from some direct marketers and phone carriers, and implemented two measures that became popular with consumers: a national "do-not call" registry with which consumers could sign up to avoid calls from telemarketers, and a rule letting cell phone subscribers keep their mobile phone numbers when switching carriers. He also gained attention over the past year for trying to crack down on indecent radio and television broadcasts after singer Justin Timberlake bared Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show that aired on the CBS television network last February. At the time, Powell called the incident a "classless, crass and deplorable stunt" and ordered an investigation. The FCC fined CBS $550,000 for the incident in September. The network is fighting the penalty. But some groups fighting indecency on the airwaves, among them the Parents Television Council in Los Angeles, say the FCC has been too timid and too slow in its crackdown and have urged Congress to increase penalties against broadcasters. Bush has the power to designate an interim FCC chairman from the current commissioners. If he does so, he would likely choose one of the agency's other two Republicans: Kathleen Abernathy, 48, a former telephone industry lobbyist, or Kevin Martin, 38, a longtime Washington lawyer who worked as an advisor during Bush's 2000 campaign. Bush could also quickly move to nominate a new chairman, which would require Senate confirmation. At the top of most observers' list is Becky Armendariz Klein, the first Latina to chair the Texas Public Utility Commission. Klein, who served in the Medical Service Corps during Desert Storm, ran against Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) in Austin for Texas' 25h congressional seat at the urging of White House officials and Republican Party leaders but lost. Other candidates include Bill Bailey, senior legal counsel for the Senate Commerce and Science Committee, FCC chief of staff Bryan Tramont and Janice Obushowski, telecom consultant and ambassador to the World Radio Communications Conference, who headed NTIA under the first President Bush. Most analysts do not expect a dramatic change in policy at the FCC even if the White House taps Martin, who sometimes clashed with the chairman over telephone deregulation. However, a Powell departure could leave the FCC without a full complement of commissioners for months and create a political opening for FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat who has proved to be a determined and outspoken critic of media consolidation in the broadcast industry. Lobbyists also worry that any vacuum at the FCC could lead to regulatory gridlock at a time when the telecommunications industry is in the midst of wrenching economic and technological change. Other experts say the industry will face a major policy change in any event. The FCC chairman has received praise from most companies for his deregulatory approach. However, consumer groups have criticized him for attempting to allow media conglomerates to grow bigger and reducing competition among wireless providers. Powell had planned on following his father's military career, entering the U.S. Army and becoming a first lieutenant. But a jeep accident in Germany in 1987 almost killed him, requiring 18 units of blood during extensive surgery in which doctors almost left him for dead. After a long rehabilitation, he went to law school, clerked for a federal judge, became chief of staff at the Justice Department's antitrust division, and was appointed in 1997 as an FCC commissioner by President Bill Clinton.