FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, a frequent advocate for free markets and limited regulation by the agency, on Wednesday said that he would step down in a few weeks.

At the FCC’s open commission meeting, McDowell said that he wanted to devote more time to his family, although there had been speculation recently that he would depart even though his term does not expire until next year.

He said that “it is time to turn more of my energies towards an even higher calling: My family.” He said that he will be talking to the FCC’s chief ethics officer to make sure his departure complies with ethics rules, but “beyond that, I have no plans other than to take my family on a much-needed vacation starting this weekend.”

McDowell had been considered a leading contender for the FCC chairmanship should Mitt Romney have been elected president.

McDowell, the longest serving member of the commission, was first appointed to the FCC by President George W. Bush in 2006. He was renominated by President Obama in 2009, continuing a custom of filling a minority of slots on the FCC with a member of the president’s opposition party. McDowell is a Republican, and his departure means that there may be two slots to fill on the FCC if Chairman Julius Genachowski also departs, as many have predicted. More than likely, Obama would nominate a Democrat and a Republican to fill the slots, which would still give Democrats a continued3-2  majority on the commission. Some in D.C. took McDowell’s announcement as a sign that Genachowski also would be announcing his departure soon as well, as it could be easier to get Senate confirmation if a Republican and a Democratic nominee are submitted at the same time.

In a statement, Genachowski called McDowell “an extraordinary colleague — deeply knowledgeable about the vital and growing communications and tech sector, thoughtful, creative and a great partner on the commission.”

Genachowski credited McDowell for his work on reform of the Universal Service Fund and intercarrier compensation, but they have found themselves on opposite sides of some contentious issues, including the FCC’s effort to create net neutrality rules. Genachowski supported and guided the plan, passed in 2010, while McDowell opposed it.

Last week, at a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing, McDowell warned of efforts to restrict Internet access via international treaties, telling the committee “we are losing the fight for Internet freedom.”

David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, said that 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.”

Gordon Smith, the president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement that McDowell’s “good humor and grace have been matched only by his ardent support for fair media ownership rules and full-throated support for a vibrant First Amendment.”

Among the names being floated as a possible successor to McDowell are Neil Fried, senior telecommunications counsel to the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Names being mentioned as potential successors to Genachowski include Tom Wheeler, managing director at Core Capital Partners and former president of the National Cable Television Assn. and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn.; Karen Kornbluh, ambassador  and permanent representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and Catherine J.K. Sandoval, a former FCC official who is currently a member of the California Public Utilities Commission.