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FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell announced at the agency's public meeting Wednesday that he will be exiting the commission.

McDowell is the longest-serving current commissioner, having joined the commission in 2006 to fill the unexpired term of then chairman Michael Powell. His first term ended June 1, 2009, but he was renominated by President Obama and confirmed for a new, five-year term.

McDowell suggested he has no new job lined up. ""I will be talking to the FCC's chief ethics officer to make sure that my departure will be in full compliance with not only the letter but  the spirit of all of our ethics rules. And beyond that, I have absolutely no plans other than to take my family on a much-needed vacation," which begins the end of this week.

McDowell had been in the conversation for chairman if Mitt Romney had won the White House.  

His chief of staff, Angela Giancarlo, announced last month she was leaving.

"Commissioner McDowell has been an exemplary public servant," said David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast. "His wisdom, practicality and hard work all contribute to the widespread respect that everyone has for him.  Commissioner McDowell’s  tireless efforts to promote a free and unregulated Internet, reform Universal Service and keep the U.S. at the forefront of International telecommunications policy are just a few of his many notable accomplishments.   We wish him all the best and congratulate him on his very successful seven year tenure at the FCC."

McDowell's exit will allow Republicans in Congress to pair up a new nominee from each party if, as expected, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski also exits the commission.

Technically the pick of FCC nominees is the president's to make, but ever since Bill Clinton deferred to Republican leadership for names to fill Republican seats, the custom is that top Senate Republicans--in this case Sens. Mitch McConnell, minority leader, and ranking Commerce Committee member John Thune (R-S.D.) get to make the call.

Among the names immediately surfacing as possible successors to McDowell: Neil Fried, senior telecommunications counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Ray Baum, former Oregon Public Utility Commission chairman and current top adviser to House Communications Subcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.); Michael O'Rielly, a staffer with Senate Republican John Cornyn (Tex.); and former Scripps Networks Chief Legal Officer A.B. Cruz, who is Latino and whose name also surfaced for the Republican seat eventually taken by Ajit Pai.

At the commission, McDowell has been a free market fan as well as a voice of caution that some of the FCC's decisions could have trouble passing muster in the courts. He has also  been a consistent warning voice about international efforts to undermine the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.

In announcing its intention to renominate McDowell in 2009, the White House pointed to broadband issues and advancement of unlicensed wireless devices in the TV spectrum space  among its reasons for supporting renomination.

The White House said that McDowell had "collaborated with his fellow commissioners to develop and establish American communications policy covering the wireless, media, and  Internet industries, in addition to international policy matters. Among other matters, he has worked to create rules governing wireless auctions; establish a framework for unlicensed  use of TV “white spaces” spectrum; develop incentives to encourage the development of new broadband technologies; review public interest benefits as part of the approval process of proposed corporate mergers; and adjudicate enforcement proceedings."

He has also consistently called for deregulating broadcast ownership, and clearing the regulatory underbrush in general, given the changes in the marketplace.

McDowell was a strong opponent of the so-called fairness doctrine, which the FCC eventually struck from the books after he pointed out that it remained in the rulebook. Although the FCC had not enforced the doctrine, which required broadcasters to affirmatively seek out opposing viewpoints on controversial issues, in almost a quarter century, it continued to cast a shadow over the agency from the viewpoint of many Republicans, broadcasters (particularly religious broadcasters) and others concerned about the speech regulation implications of its return.

Before joining the FCC, McDowell was senior vice president and assistant general counsel at COMPTEL. Before joining CompTel in February 1999, he served as the executive vice president and general counsel of America's Carriers Telecommunications Association, which merged with CompTel. He was twice a candidate for the Virginia General Assembly and is a graduate of Duke with a law degree from William & Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law.

Here is how McDowell broke the news at Wedensday's public meeting:

"After nearly seven years of carrying out the incredibly high honor of serving the American people at the FCC, it is time to turn more of my energies towards an even higher calling: serving my family.  After a great deal of deliberation, I have decided that I will step down as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission in a few weeks. 

"Today’s announcement is not a farewell.  As you know, I don’t do well with those, so let’s avoid all of that for now and tackle that challenge another day.  I will also save most of my expressions of appreciation for a later date.  But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer up some of the bigger thank-yous right away, such as to: God, my parents, my beautiful bride Jennifer, our three amazing children, as well as our large family-at-large, friends, all of my colleagues on the Commission - both past and present, and the talented and dedicated public servants throughout the FCC, especially all of the wonderful and tireless professionals who have worked on my team in my office.  Please keep in mind that trying to make me look good day after day as we fought for freedom must have been quite a challenge for them.

"I would also like to thank the individuals who literally handed me this job, twice: first and foremost, Senator Ted Stevens, President George W. Bush, Senator Mitch McConnell and President Barack Obama, as well as many Members of Congress.  Thank you for placing such enormous trust in me.

"Again, this is not a time for farewells, I’m just announcing my plans to step down sometime soon.  So what am I doing next?  I will be talking to the FCC’s Chief Ethics Officer, Patrick J. Carney, to make sure that my departure is in full compliance with the letter and spirit of all of our ethics rules.  Beyond that, I have no plans other than to take my family on a much-needed vacation starting this weekend."

"So until the farewells, as always, may God bless each of you and our great nation."

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.