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Genachowski Exiting in 'Coming Weeks'

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has made his departure official.

In a meeting Friday morning (March 22) that was streamed on the FCC's Web site, he told the assembled staffers that he would be leaving the agency "in the coming weeks."

Genachowski did not say when he was leaving, but he is expected to stay through the commission's April 18 meeting. He also has a date to address the National Association of Broadcasters convention April 10.

“Over the past four years, we’ve focused the FCC on broadband, wired and wireless, working to drive economic growth and improve the lives of all Americans," he told staffers. "And thanks to you, the Commission’s employees, we’ve taken big steps to build a future where broadband is ubiquitous and bandwidth is abundant, where innovation and investment are flourishing."

Genachowski joined the commission in June 2009, a moment hailed by public-interest group progressives as an opportunity to advance their agenda. But the FCC under chairman Genachowski proved more moderate, approving the Comcast/NBCU merger, for one; adopting pro-cable policies primarily because they were also pro-broadband,;and re-introducing a loosening of media ownership rules similar to that of predecessor Kevin Martin, who was pilloried by some of the same groups hanging their agenda on Genachowski.

The FCC chairman's anouncement follows that earlier in the week by Republican commissioner Robert McDowell, who also said he is leaving in the next few weeks. The tandem exits gives President Obama a chance to pair their replacements. In the interim, either commissioners Mignon Clyburn or Jessica Rosenworcel could be acting chairs of a 2-1 commission. Both are in the conversation to replace Genachowski as well, as is National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Tom Wheeler and Karen Kornbluh, longtime Obama adviser.

Said to be among those on the list of possible McDowell replacements are Ray Baum, former Oregon Public Utility Commission chairman and current top adviser to House CommunicationsSubcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.),  and Neil Fried, senior telecommunications counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Michael O'Rielly, a staffer with Senate Republican John Cornyn (Tex.) and former Scripps Networks Chief Legal Officer A.B. Cruz, who is Latino have also been mentioned.

In a letter to the commission Friday, women's groups called on the President to name a woman to succeed Genachowski.

Politico reported late Thursday that Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski on March 22 would announce that he was leaving the commission, perhaps the worst-kept secret in Washington.

For months, the question has mostly been when the chairman would leave, at least according to Washington lobbyists and attorneys. As recently as the press conference after the FCC's monthly meeting March 20, Genachowski said there was nothing to report, deflecting the question he has been getting for months.

Among the leading names for Genachowski's big chair is former National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Tom Wheeler. Wheeler, managing director of Core Capital Partners, was a fund-raiser for President Obama and tech policy advisor for the transition team and beyond. He is a former wireless exec and head of CTIA, and a renaissance man who wrote a book on leadership lessons from the Civil War.

Also said to be in the hunt are Jason Furman, the “whip-smart economist” (as one Democrat puts it) who is assistant to the president for economic policy. Furman is said to be about on par with longtime Obama adviser Karen Kornbluh.

Free Press, which celebrated Genachowski's arrival, also applauded his exit. Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron made the following statement: "When Julius Genachowski took office, there were high hopes that he would use his powerful position to promote the public interest. But instead of acting as the people's champion, he’s catered to corporate interests. His tenure has been marked by wavering and caving rather than the strong leadership so needed at this crucial agency."

In a talk at the Free State Foundation, former FCC Broadband Plan architect Blair Levin, invoked Lincoln in advising creative thinking about making the transition to an all digital world. Wheeler is said to be a Lincoln scholar, and the comment could be read as advice to the possible chairman.  “[T]he economic foundations of the social contract necessary to drive the deployment of the voice and video networks are eroding and will not suffice to drive continual improvements in our broadband networks. In that light, as Lincoln said, 'the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.' " 

Tributes were already beginning to flow even before the official staff meeting announcement.

 “As a former FCC Chairman who appreciates the incredible privilege and immense responsibility of overseeing the nation’s telecommunications sector, I want to thank and congratulate chairman Genachowski for his outstanding leadership and remarkable accomplishments during his tenure," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell in a statement. "During a period of tremendous economic turmoil and marketplace uncertainty, chairman Genachowski established a future-focused agenda that promoted investment in networks and services that are now delivering important societal benefits to American consumers.  Chairman Genachowski wisely believed that ubiquitous Internet connectivity would be the defining technology of our day, and his leadership has ensured that America’s robust wired and wireless broadband networks are world class.  The entire cable industry is grateful to chairman Genachowski for his exceptional leadership.  We look forward to working closely with the current and future leadership of the commission.”

American Cable Association president and CEO Matt Polka also weighed in: "Viewed in their totality, Chairman Genachowski’s achievements -- which include numerous waivers and exemptions that avoided placing disproportionate regulatory burdens on smaller operators --  show that he understood and accounted for the concerns and values of smaller operators. ACA greatly appreciates that and wishes chairman Genachowski a long and productive future.”

"NAB salutes Chairman Genachowski for his years of service at the FCC," National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith said in a statement. "The FCC chair is arguably one of the most difficult jobs in Washington, and yet Julius consistently performed with dedication and focus. We may have disagreed on occasion, but America's broadcasters wish him well in his journeys ahead."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.