Given reports of FCC Chairman Michael Powell's impending resignation, the buzz in communications policy circles will no doubt focus on speculation about his successor. Although nomination of a new FCC Chair seems unlikely to figure prominently in the President's second term agenda, selecting someone to take the reins will be no trivial matter. Notions of deregulation and agency reform aside, the FCC will remain the hub of activity for the information economy, encompassing the communications, information technology and related manufacturing sectors. That person will face enormous challenges: tectonic shifts in technology and markets that have made the current regulatory framework obsolete, one of the largest and most influential groups of lobbyists and lawyers known, a general public that wavers between wanting the burgeoning investment and innovation of free markets and the predictability of government assurances. And he (or she) must do this with only one vote in a five-member commission.
So perhaps more important than the name of the next FCC Chair is his or her temperament.
By necessity, the new FCC Chair must be smart, but also courageous enough to use that intelligence to dissect and take charge of issues that may be politically messy, if not radioactive. That person must articulate a coherent vision of how the seemingly disparate provisions of the Communications Act and of the FCC's own rules should work together for consumers, as opposed to the companies jockeying for regulatory favor. Once taking action, that person must be willing to withstand unavoidable criticisms that they have gone too far and - always simultaneously - criticisms that they have not gone far enough. And that person must learn to wear as a badge of honor battle scars inflicted while steering the best course through the thicket of interest groups - taking pleasure in knowing that often the decisions that best protect the public interest are those that make everyone unhappy, at least a little.
Certainly, Chairman Powell has embodied many of these qualities. His greatest contribution since he took office in 1997 is that he made us understand the importance of the migration to digital communications. He led the charge in promoting investment and innovation in Wi-Fi and wireless, Internet voice, broadband and other technologies that became critical to consumers and the economy.
In sum, Powell has been a true public servant, and a Chair whose influence (at least in policy circles) will be remembered long after the legacy technologies and regulation that have challenged him are faint memories the next generation will consider quaint bafflements. We can only hope that future Chairs will attack the challenges he faced with half as much honesty, foresight and intellectual rigor - and that the White House understands the importance of picking a successor with just that sort of temperament.