Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell last week announced he will resign his post in March. His four-year tenure was criticized for frequent division -- and often, public bickering -- among commissioners on key issues such as media ownership and wireline competition, but his wireless policies generally have been applauded.

One of Powell's top priorities upon being named chairman was to invest in the bureau's engineering department, which used outdated facilities and employed an unhealthy percentage of people who were on the verge of retirement. Today, the FCC's state-of-the-art testing facilities and infusion of new engineering blood provides the agency with more independent analysis of difficult technical issues, including RF interference.

Powell also has been a champion of spectrum policy reform. He actively pushed for the allocation of unlicensed spectrum that helped spur the development of technologies such as Wi-Fi, pursued the use of white space between active TV broadcasting channels and was steadfast against many naysayers concerning the approval of rules governing ultrawideband technology. Powell also played a key role in promoting the establishment of a secondary spectrum market and the allocation of 4.9 GHz airwaves to public safety.

But there is little doubt that Powell's finest moment came with the passage of the 800 MHz order that is designed to mitigate interference created by commercial carriers -- namely, Nextel Communications -- that hampered public-safety communications in the band.

Quite frankly, this was a train wreck waiting to happen. Public safety and Nextel had negotiated the so-called Consensus Plan that proved to be the foundation of the eventual order, but the initial deal was lacking -- Nextel's politically powerful competitors criticized the inclusion of the 1.9 GHz swath as a spectrum "giveaway" and there wasn't enough money in the plan to cover the rebanding costs.

Meanwhile, there were significant legal questions whether the FCC had the authority to even consider such a deal, something noted by members of Congress. Lawmakers also wanted money for the 1.9 GHz spectrum as if it was auctioned, but did not want to spend any money for rebanding.

There appeared no way out of this mess. If Nextel paid too little, there would not be enough money for rebanding and Verizon Wireless would tie up the process in court. If Nextel was required to pay too much, it might not agree to reband or the payment could significantly damage the wireless carrier, which employs thousands of people and provides a valuable service to many consumers and government entities.

Despite being prodded by public-safety officials to quickly approve the Consensus Plan, Powell remained firm and slowly played his cards just right in this high-stakes game of poker. Although we're still awaiting Nextel's approval that's expected early next month, it appears certain that public safety will get more spectrum than it originally sought and will not have to pay a dime for rebanding. Nextel will get the contiguous spectrum it needed to make its merger with Sprint realistic, which means there will be at least three large commercial wireless operators in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Congress will not have to find any money for rebanding and could see some Nextel cash in the U.S. Treasury.

Most remarkably, there apparently will not be any serious legal challenges to delay the rebanding effort. I'm still not convinced that the FCC has the legal authority to direct payments as the rebanding order does. I feel certain that Congress would have challenged the vote immediately except that the deal was so good and resolved so many pending issues at once -- political hairballs that lawmakers had absolutely no desire to address.

Powell's tenure had its ups and downs, but his ability to navigate through multiple political minefields and emerge unscathed with a unanimous order that benefited public safety greatly was nothing short of amazing. The nation's first responders can only hope that Powell's successor will be as successful in protecting their interests.

E-mail me at djackson@primediabusiness.com.