FCC Chairman Announces Exit Friday

Genachowski announcement comes two days after Commissioner McDowell

Well, that was fast. Federal Communications Commission Julius Genachowski announced Friday he is leaving the agency just two days after Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said he would bow out in a few weeks.

Like McDowell, Genachowski avoided giving a precise exit date but said he would step down in the coming weeks.

"It has been a profound honor and great privilege to serve in the post for four years," said Genachowski before a room full of FCC staffers. 

It has been long rumored that Genachowski, who was named chairman in 2009 by his former law school classmate President Barack Obama in 2009, would serve only one term at the FCC. But despite speculation and persistent questions from the industry and the press, Genachowski would never come clean about when he would leave.

In his Friday farewell which clocked in at about 25 minutes, Genachowski credited his staff with "getting big things done for this country." Ticking off a long list of accomplishments, it was telling that Genachowski led and concluded with the issue most near and dear to his heart: increasing broadband accessibility, adoption and speed.

"We have focused the FCC on broadband," said Genachowski who was dubbed the Spectrum Chairman by the CES' Gary Shapiro in January. "We've taken big steps to build a future where broadband is ubiquitous…America's broadband economy is thriving. The U.S. has gone from laggard to leader. U.S. mobile innovation is the envy of the world."

Genachowski's and McDowell's nicely timed exit will leave the commission 2-1 with two Democrats (Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel) and one GOP (Ajit Pai). Most in Washington believed that is exactly the way Genachowski wanted to leave it to avoid a 2-2 split. The circumstances also make it easier for President Obama to get Senate confirmation for both a Democrat and a Republican nominee.

So what's next? Washington will begin to place its bets on who President Obama is likely to nominate to replace Genachowski and McDowell, and who he will name chairman or chairwoman.

There's been considerable pressure on Obama to pick the first woman chair of the FCC, and it's hard to see how he could get around naming Commissioner Clyburn, the senior Democrat on the commission. But other names have become popular in recent weeks. 

Topping the list is venture capitalist Tom Wheeler, managing director of Core Capital Partners. Wheeler's bundled plenty of dollars for the Obama campaign and has wireless and cable chops from his experience as former head of both the CTIA-The Wireless Association (1992-2003) and the NCTA (1976-1984). If Obama makes the decision based on politics, Wheeler is the likely choice.

Other names include Commissioner Rosenworcel, a favorite of Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Karen Kornbluh, former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

On the GOP side, the picks are less clear. Since Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) picked Commissioner Pai, tradition is that it's the House's turn to suggest a Republican commissioner. One of the names mentioned is Ray Baum, a senior aide to Rep. Greg Walden (D-Ore.), chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee.