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The FCC Plays Musical ChairsThe FCC Plays Musical Chairs

Things are chaotic but the people are quiet as the FCC's new chairman settles in

March 28, 2005

4 Min Read
The FCC Plays Musical Chairs

The doors at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have been revolving non-stop this year, as the new chairman, Kevin Martin, establishes his office and sets his agenda (see That's Chairman Kev, to You...).

Personnel changes at the FCC are more important than ever as the purveyors of VOIP and other new technologies are in a state of flux. Just last week, what could have been a watershed moment in VOIP regulation was put off as Level 3 Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: LVLT) withdrew a request to shield VOIP carriers from access charges. The carrier cited personnel moves at the commission as its reason for acting as it did (see Level 3 Yanks VOIP Petition).

While some heavy VOIP questions remain unanswered, the FCC's bureau chiefs under the previous chairman, Michael Powell, who resigned January 21, are falling away en masse. And two commissioner seats will soon change, as one vacancy needs to be filled and one commissioner prepares to step down.

Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree left March 4, Consumer & Governmental Affairs bureau chief Dane Snowden left March 11, Wireless Bureau chief John Muleta resigned March 14, and Enforcement Bureau chief David Solomon recently announced he’ll depart later this spring.

International Bureau chief Donald Abelson has not officially announced plans to leave the commission, although a well placed source told Light Reading he too has resigned.

The latest chief to step aside is Wireline Bureau chief Jeffrey Carlisle, who turned in his resignation to Martin last Monday and plans to leave April 1. Carlisle was the man who made it clear that the previous iteration of the FCC would not step in to regulate and apply tariffs to a new IP service such as the free peer-to-peer voice service from Skype Technologies SA.

"Their servers are in Estonia. I don't have an enforcement staff in Estonia," he told a group of rural telecom carriers in February (see Rural Carriers Circle the Wagons).

Will that still hold under Martin's regime?

It's hard to tell right now. The new chairman has asked the bureaus to decline from making public statements until he's had a chance to settle in, sources close to the commission say.

And, the FCC is in a partisan deadlock at the moment. Martin’s ascension to the chairmanship left the fifth and tie-breaking commissioner spot vacant. Now four commissioners remain, split along party lines; Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are the Democrats, and Kathleen Abernathy and Martin are the Republicans.

To add to the drama, Commissioner Abernathy, whose term ended in June 2004, must by law step down by the end of this year’s congressional session.

It all sounds like a mess, but the commission's spokesman says this is business as usual. “This is the third leadership transition I’ve seen, and it is no different than when Chairman Powell took over or when Chairman Kinnard took over,” says the FCC’s media relations director David Fiske.

But did Martin lay down a gag order for the FCC's bureau staff? Fiske says the “gag order” tag is extreme and insists here too that what Martin did was not out of the ordinary. “This talk about there being a gag order on the bureaus has been far overstated,” he says. “There was one guy that made a speech to the Media Institute; that’s all it was.”

Fiske was referring to FCC Chief of Policy Development Robert Pepper, who was scheduled to speak last Thursday at a Media Institute lunch, but unexpectedly sent an email last Monday -- after Martin took office -- saying the lunch had been canceled.

Fiske said that Powell made the same request for an organizational “time out” on public speaking when he came to office; Powell just handled it differently. A central question now is whether the difference in Martin's leadership style is indicative of a change in policy direction.

Gag order or no, Fiske says quizzing the bureau chiefs and FCC staff during a transitional period is a moot point. “And it’s no good for [staff] either; they are put in a position of answering questions that they won’t know the answers to: ‘What are you going to do about media ownership?’ ‘What are you going to do about telecom rules?’ There’s no way they’re going to be able to answer those questions right now.”

So what is happening?

Chairman Martin is now meeting extensively with the bureau chiefs, some of them outgoing, and some of the “acting” chiefs, and other staff. “They need some time to set priorities and set agendas and go over time tables -- there are hundreds of policy decisions to be made at the start of the term,” Fiske says. In the meantime, Martin's FCC will be rather quiet. The next scheduled open meeting of the commission is set for April 28.

“Give [Martin] a little time -- it always takes two weeks or so for someone to get settled in,” Fiske says. “You’ve got to understand what a huge difference there is between being a commissioner and running the commission.”

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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