Our big news this week, obviously, was the big announcement from the Federal Communications Commission’s meeting March 20 that Robert McDowell, the current commissioner with the most tenure, is stepping down from the FCC. “[I]t is time to turn more of my energies towards an even higher calling: serving my family,” Commissioner McDowell said. He indicated that he would leave the FCC in a few weeks. Well, that WAS the big story right up to the moment we started penning this round-up and then heard that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski would announce his departure from the FCC on March 22.

Commissioner McDowell had hardly finished his announcement before observers said that move makes it easier for Chairman Genachowski to soon follow him to the doors. The pair’s departure means Democrats will still have a 2-1 voting advantage until new commissioners are nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the US Senate. The Senate also seems to like to confirm commissioners in Republican-Democrat pairs, so this could help move that process along.

While much of the recent talk has been about Genachowski’s eventual replacement, there appears to be no leading candidate to succeed Commissioner McDowell. The most often mentioned include Ray Baum, a senior aide to House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR), and Neil Fried, senior telecommunications counsel to the House Commerce Committee.

The National Journal’s Brian Fung considered Commissioner’s legacy and pointed to these three “moments”:

  1. Commissioner McDowell wanted to review every FCC regulation on the books. The commission rulebook is over 3,695 pages long, McDowell complained in 2011. The commissioner said the collection was “mind-numbing” and vowed to go through the whole thing, recommending cuts as he went.
  2. Public clash with Chairman Genachowski. As the FCC was debating network neutrality -- the regulation prohibiting Internet service providers from giving certain kinds of Web traffic priority over others – Commissioner McDowell took on the Chairman for not making the draft order available to the public for review. “Openness used to be standard operating procedure for the FCC,” he said. “But the commission's transparency has become more opaque in recent years."
  3. Commissioner McDowell sounded the alarm on Internet freedom. Commissioner McDowell was one of the first policymakers to warn that regulatory proposals from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) would upend the Internet's flourishing regime.

But more than particular policies, however, most of the praise heaped on McDowell focused on his congenial nature and “an abiding adherence to his regulatory principles, rather than to reaching a particular result,” as Scott Flick pointed out. “While I suspect he might bristle at being described as a ‘rational regulator,’ preferring instead to be known as a ‘devoted deregulator,’ Commissioner McDowell represented a common-sense approach to the communications industry and the business of regulating it,” Flick wrote.

The first reaction we saw to the Genachowski news came from Free Press. President and CEO Craig Aaron said, “Though President Obama promised his FCC chairman would not continue the Bush administration’s failed media ownership policies, Genachowski offered the exact same broken ideas that Bush’s two chairmen pushed. He never faced the public and ignored the overwhelming opposition to his plans. Genachowski claimed broadband was his agency's top priority, but he stood by as prices rose and competition dwindled. He claimed to be a staunch defender of the open Internet, but his Net Neutrality policies are full of loopholes and offer no guarantee that the FCC will be able to protect consumers from corporate abuse in the future. While there were a few bright moments during the Genachowski years — including the agency’s opposition to the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and the push for more online transparency from broadcasters — the chairman squandered many more opportunities at critical junctures. We urge President Obama to nominate a successor who will enact policies that foster real competition, protect diversity and amplify local voices.”

There will be lots more reaction on March 22 and in the days to come. Much of the reaction is likely to focus on Genachowski’s efforts to increase broadband deployment and adoption and especially the FCC’s efforts to write the National Broadband Plan as mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Ironically, the Plan’s third anniversary passed in the last week with no mention in the press.) The chairman is also likely to remembered for trying to increase the amount of spectrum available for wireless broadband – although he departs as the FCC tries to craft one of the most complex spectrum auctions ever: actions that are meant to entice current television broadcasters to give up the airwaves they use to transmit their signals.

But more than legacy, Washington observers will be focused on what’s next – or, more precisely, who’s next. Writing in the Washington Post on March 16, Emily Heil reported that the White House seems to have settled on a handful of potential FCC chairs:

Writing for Benton’s The Digital Beat recently, former FCC Chairman Michael Copps warned that the “name game” is nowhere near as important as “obtaining clear public policy commitments, from both the Administration and the eventual FCC nominee, on a priority list of telecommunications and media challenges that confront the nation.” It is, Copps argues, the priorities a President lays out when he makes a nomination that are hugely important.

If the President is really going to push to bring high-speed broadband to all Americans—no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives—that mission goes beyond the FCC, yet FCC policies would be critical to its accomplishment. If the President is serious about moving against the excessive media industry consolidation that he discussed as a Senator, and about reasserting the public interest in media policy that he also talked and wrote about as a candidate, he needs to give the new FCC Chair an explicit charge to use the laws on the books to make these things happen.

So, yes, this week brings big changes to the FCC. New faces are important (and we shared news last month about what goes into the decision) – but more important are the changes, if any, in priorities the new commissioners will bring with them.

Headlines staff will be on the road for the next couple of weeks, so you’ll next see us Friday, April 12. But, ‘til then, we’ll see you in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.