Another Powell is taking leave of Washington. After four years fighting battles largely beyond his control, Michael Powell, the affable chief of the Federal Communications Commission, will leave his post with a tangle of issues unresolved. The FCC chairman stepped down Friday after seven years with the agency and four years as its chief. The move comes just two days after his father, Secretary of State Colin Powell, bade farewell to the Bush administration, concluding his own difficult four-year term. "Having completed a bold and aggressive agenda, it is time for me to pursue other opportunities and let someone else take the reins of the agency," Michael Powell said in a statement that indicates he'll leave in March. Fans say the Republican FCC chief, who in 1997 was appointed to the media and telecom panel by President Clinton, was the right man to open the way to more competitive markets. "History will be kind to Powell," says telecom policy analyst Scott Cleland of the Precursor Group. "He got the technology right, he got the market forces right and the law right." Cleland acknowledges that Powell didn't always play the politics right, but says he excelled at getting government out of the way for new technologies like phone service via the Internet and aggressive wireless spectrum allocation. He also provided early support of new wireless technologies like WiFi. Powell joined the agency at a dramatic point in history. The Telecom Act of 1996 had just been passed, a tech-driven bull market was under way, and the Internet had suddenly sprouted as a new vehicle of commerce and innovation. But critics say that while Powell's intentions were good, he lacked some of the political finesse that could have helped broker solutions between powerful industry forces and consumer interests. One obvious development during Powell's run is that big companies got even larger, which failed to translate to smaller cable or phone bills. Former telecom and media executive Leo Hindery faults Powell for his failure to strike more of a balance during his tenure, instead of aligning so often with big industry. "Michael Powell, on a personal level, is one of the finest individuals to ever walk through the commission, but I'm saddened that he didn't remove himself better from the political pressures of big media and big telco," says Hindery.
Powell notably thrust the FCC into indecency cases that seemed to only fan the flames of controversy. But perhaps his most memorable moment is when he failed to reach a consensus with his four other FCC commissioners on phone-pricing rules. Powell took a firm stand on rolling back deep mandatory discounts for long-distance phone companies like AT&T ( T) and MCI ( MCIP) that rented local network access from the Bells -- Verizon ( VZ), SBC ( SBC) and BellSouth ( BLS). This so-called unbundling of the local phone networks plan was a contentious effort to help open the market, stimulate innovation and lower prices through competition. The rules were ultimately shot down when U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson chose not to ask the Supreme Court to consider an appeal of a prior defeat of proposed pricing rules. "Powell was stubborn on his principles," says Cleland of the break the chairman made with his fellow regulators. "He was willing to go down in defeat on principle because he knew the court would prove him right. And it did." Cleland says Powell is leaving at a good time, having served one term and getting most of the deregulation issues done. As for a replacement, Cleland says it's too close to call between two front-runners: FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin and Bush chum and former Texas utility regulator Becky Klein. "Right now, the FCC needs the wisdom and impartiality of King Solomon," says Hindery. "I hope Mike's successor brings those with him."