FCC chair to step down -- who will step up next?

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski listens remarks before the commission voted to adopted controversial Net neutrality rules December 21, 2010 in Washington, DC. The rules put into effect by the commission create two different classes of broadband internet service -- one for fixed networks and another for wireless networks -- due to their technological differences.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

(MoneyWatch) Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski will step down in the next few weeks, in advance of the formal end of his term in June. This will close a four year stint of considerable controversy and contention. In addition, Robert McDowell, the senior FCC Republican commissioner, said earlier this week that he will also be leaving soon.

It's two more positions that President Obama will have to nominate candidates for and two more that Congress will have to agree on. But although the confirmation process for appointees has often been controversial, the real difficulty may be finding candidates for no-win jobs. FCC commissioners find themselves in the middle of a situation in which they can't please anyone, in which interested parties are rarely interested in compromise.

The problem faced by commissioners can be summarized by a criticism of Genachowski's tenure, as expressed by Time:

In seeking to strike a centrist balance, Genachowski managed to alienate both public interest groups that have pushed for a more activist FCC on issues like media ownership and Internet openness, as well as industry giants, particularly AT&T, which had proposed buying T-Mobile before the FCC objected. Verizon Wireless is currently suing the FCC in federal court over the agency's "network neutrality" rules.

The difficult for the commissioners is that they serve as mediators in some of the most acrimonious debates over technology and public policy. Broadband accessibility, tensions between cable service providers and Internet-based companies, telecommunications consolidation, and consumer rights all collide in an information highway multi-car mashup.

In many of these debates, opposing sides have dug in their heels and failed to find compromise. The conflicts are further elevated when they become proxies for congressional political battles.

Obama will nominate one Democrat and one Republican, because no more than three out of the five member panel can be from the same political party. But getting confirmation in the Senate may be the easy part in continuing the work of the agency.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.