When Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski announced his departure from the agency earlier today, it came as little surprise to practitioners who generally agreed that agency policies under a new chairman would remain consistent.
"I wouldn't expect the new chairman to change the policy direction of the FCC to a great degree, but I would expect them to put some of their staff in key positions, which could lead to some delay or disruption," said Samuel Feder, chair of Jenner & Block's communications practice. "Changes might slow things down."
Jonathan Nuechterlein, chair of the communications, privacy and internet law practice group at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, said that without knowing for certain who Genachowski's replacement will be, it makes it difficult to predict what policy changes if any will occur.
"People overstate the change that a replacement at the top creates for ongoing initiatives at the FCC," Nuechterlein said. "Much of what the FCC does is not controversial. The FCC does a lot of important things that don't hit the political radar screen and are multiyear undertakings by career staff people."
Genachowski's announcement followed those of Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell and Chief Counsel Sherrese Smith, who on Wednesday both announced their departures.
The announcements by Genachowski and McDowell open up two of the top five slots at the agency, for which President Barack Obama is expected to nominate a Democrat and a Republican, respectively, to replace them. Practitioners agreed that the timing of the two key departures was not coincidental, given that pairing nominees from opposing parties will speed up the confirmation process.
"You are seeing that today in the gridlock of Washington, D.C. that a pairing works out best," said Wiley Rein chairman and former FCC chairman Richard Wiley. "I don't think it was happenstance that they are leaving at the same time."
Practicing attorneys identified several ongoing initiatives and matters that a new chairman would inherit. Among them are universal access to high-speed, broadband Internet; net neutrality; broadband spectrum and the universal service support program.
Wiley identified the plan to free spectrum for wireless broadband use and the rules governing it as "the biggest priority that the agency will have in the next year or two."
Nuechterlein highlighted Verizon Inc.'s challenge to the net neutrality rule, a case pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He said the court could issue a ruling as early as this summer.
Overall, attorneys felt that overseeing the agency during a time of great technological advancement was a major challenge, and commended the outgoing chairman for his efforts. In a statement, Obama thanked Genachowski for his focus on "spurring innovation, helping our businesses compete in a global economy and helping our country attract the industries and jobs of tomorrow."
"Because of his leadership, we have expanded high-speed Internet access, fueled growth in the mobile sector, and continued to protect the open Internet as a platform for entrepreneurship and free speech," Obama said.
Covington & Burling partner Yaron Dori commended Genachowski for his work as chairman, but said that his legacy would only become clear when viewed in hindsight.
"I think being chairman of the FCC in an era of great change in technology is always a challenge," said Dori. "This chairman understood the changes and tried to orient the agency in a way that respected legacy technologies, but at the same time looked ahead at new technologies. I think there is a mixed verdict on how carefully he balanced those interests. I think time will tell if he got that balance right."