Powell blazed a trail that's hard to follow

WASHINGTON — Whether it’s a former public utilities chief from the Lone Star state, an insider whose time has come or anyone in between, the next Federal Communications Commission topper should be as comfortable with the sword as with the pen.

Current chairman Michael K. Powell, who recently announced his intention to depart in March, initiated some bold measures on emerging communication technologies. But many details have yet to be spelled out. Powell also launched major efforts that in turn triggered major offensives of opposition, forcing the commission to take up arms in ways it never really anticipated.

Powell has blazed the trail in the transition to digital television and radio. Today, almost 1,500 TV stations are broadcasting digital signals, up from 75 when he became chairman in 2001. But the FCC has yet to set a hard deadline for when all stations must give up their analog signals.

Powell also wanted to end subsidies to certain phone companies, causing a deep split among his fellow commissioners and leading to a federal court order to reconsider the proposal. Powell impressively salvaged the plan by working out a deal, but the agency has yet to issue revised, final rules.

The two major efforts that resulted in nearly instantaneous blowback are, of course, Powell’s attempt to loosen rules on media ownership and his seemingly ambivalent stance on indecency.

For the moment, the media ownership proposal — “the biggest debacle in the FCC’s history,” as an agency official described it — is on hold. Congress blocked part of it and a federal court stopped the rest, saying the commission had failed to justify its reasons for essentially allowing more media companies to own more outlets in a single market.

The agency has until Jan. 31 to decide if it will take the court ruling to the Supreme Court. If the FCC does, the new chairman will have to figure out how to justify the proposal not only in the face of a skeptical judiciary but also amid a huge coalition of parties who hate the idea for a variety of reasons.

Meanwhile, large media companies that support the idea are planning to ask the Supreme Court to review the ruling, regardless of the FCC’s intentions.

As for indecency, you don’t have to be a candidate for FCC chairman to know the rules are baffling and vague: Witness the dozens of television stations that balked at carrying the recent network broadcast of “Saving Private Ryan,” for fear the FCC would fine them for the pic’s prolific use of profanity.

Powell’s successor is going to have to figure out just what those rules mean — and fast. Media companies are ready to sue the agency over them and conservative groups are demanding the commission adopt their interpretation of the rules.

As to whose lap all this will fall into, names most bruited about for successor include Becky Klein, former head of the Texas Public Utility Commission, and Michael Gallagher, a former Verizon Wireless lobbyist and now a telecom bureaucrat in the Bush administration. But the odds-on favorite continues to be Kevin Martin, already an FCC commissioner (appointed by President Bush, on whose 2000 campaign Martin served). Moreover, Martin’s wife is an adviser to VP Dick Cheney.

“All logical choices,” says one industry observer. And to varying degrees, all (as well as others under consideration) have relevant experience. But the question remains: Who can wield the pen and the sword?

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