Larry Strickling, the head of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Blair Levin, the architect of the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan, are the top candidates to be FCC chairman in President Obama's second term, sources told BNA.
The current chairman, Julius Genachowski, will likely announce his resignation sometime in the next several months, according to several sources with knowledge of his thinking.
Genachowski, who attended Harvard Law School with the president and who helped shape his technology agenda during the 2008 presidential campaign, may even advise the administration on whom to pick as his replacement, those sources said.
Sources said Strickling and Levin have the experience, the respect of communications industry stakeholders, and the understanding of the sometimes arcane quirks of FCC regulations and bureaucracy to do the job. Both also have been key players in Obama's first-term agenda.
As NTIA chief, Strickling has watched over $4 billion in grants for broadband expansion projects as part of Obama's $800 billion stimulus program.
He has also led a multimillion-dollar project to create the nation's first National Broadband Map to better target limited resources for improving internet access for citizens, particularly in rural areas.
But perhaps most relevant to Obama's second-term agenda is Strickling's involvement in spectrum policy reforms.
Strickling has been the point man in the Obama administration's effort to identify and make available some 500 megahertz of spectrum for wireless broadband networks by 2020. The NTIA, which manages the federal government's use of the airwaves, has been under increasing pressure from Congress and the wireless industry to pry loose frequencies from so-called “inefficient” users, among them powerful agencies like the Department of Defense. But with Strickling at the helm, the NTIA so far is on track to meet the president's 2020 goal.
In laying out that goal in a June 2010 executive order, the president in effect endorsed the FCC's--and Levin's--National Broadband Plan recommendation to Congress to pass legislation authorizing the agency to hold voluntary “incentive auctions,” under which television stations can voluntarily give back their licensed frequencies in exchange for a share of the proceeds of an auction to wireless carriers led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc.
Levin came up with the idea when he was chief of staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt during the Clinton administration.
He included it in the National Broadband Plan, and Obama quickly embraced it. The president lobbied Senate and House leaders to insert into the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act (Pub. L. No. 112-78) legislation authorizing the FCC to hold incentive auctions, and in February signed the final package into law. The FCC will look to finalize rules for auctions in 2013, and conduct the auction 2014.
“Having a successful auction will be the No. 1 priority of this new chairman in Obama's second term, which would make Strickling and Levin the most suitable candidates for the job,” one source explained.
Both men also have served in leadership roles at the agency, Strickling as chief of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau from 1998 to 2000 and Levin as executive director of the FCC's Omnibus Broadband Initiative in 2009 and 2010. Strickling also served as FCC associate general counsel, while Levin served as Chairman Hundt's chief of staff.
According to another source who spoke to BNA on the condition of anonymity, if Obama picks Strickling for the job, he may then decide to pick Levin to replace Strickling as NTIA administrator.
“That would be a compelling alignment,” the source said.
Another possible candidate for the top FCC job is Karen Kornbluh, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Kornbluh served as Obama's policy director when he was a U.S. senator, and also helped craft the 2008 Democratic platform when he ran for president.
She is also an FCC veteran, having served as director of the FCC's Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs in February 1997, a time when the FCC just began implementing provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first comprehensive rewrite of the communications law since 1934.
Former FCC Commissioner Susan Ness could also be considered for the job.
Ness was a commissioner from 1994 to 2001, and co-led a federal agency review team for the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition in 2009. Ness was also believed to be on Obama's shortlist for FCC chairman the last time around.
Kornbluh or Ness, if selected, would be the first female FCC chair in the agency's history.
Within the current Obama administration, two other candidates for the FCC top job have emerged: U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel and Thomas Power, deputy chief technology officer for telecommunications in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.
From the private sector, Scott Blake Harris, general counsel and senior vice president of NeuStar, Inc. and former general counsel of the Department of Energy during Obama's first term; and Thomas Wheeler, managing director of the venture-capital firm Core Capital Partners and the former chief executive officer of CTIA-The Wireless Association as well as the National Cable Television Association, are also contenders.
Harris was chief counsel for export administration in the Department of Commerce and chief of the FCC's International Bureau, both during the Clinton administration.
Wheeler, meanwhile, has served on the Obama-Biden transition team and the president's Intelligence Advisory Board; Wheeler also currently chairs the agency's Technology Advisory Council.
To replace Genachowski, Obama may also decide to promote one of the current Democratic FCC Commissioners, Mignon Clyburn or Jessica Rosenworcel.
Both have strong advocates on Capitol Hill who are believed to be lobbying for them to take the gavel. Clyburn's father is Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, is Rosenworcel's former boss.
The more likely scenario, said one source, is that Clyburn will serve as acting chair while the Senate confirms the president's nominee.
Reached for official comment Nov. 9, a spokesman for Genachowski said the chairman “is focused, and plans to remain focused” on the agency's current agenda.
The chairmanship of the FCC has played a vital role in regulating the U.S. economy over the past 10 years, particularly with the proliferation of digital infrastructure and wireless communications.
A decision by the president would be expected soon after Genachowski steps down.
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