FCC Chairman Michael Powell's announcement last month that he will resign from the commission in March jump-started speculation regarding a replacement, but most analysts believe the mobile arena will be among the least affected sectors supervised by the agency.

Powell made his announcement on Jan. 21, confirming multiple news reports published that morning. In a prepared statement, Powell said it was time for him to make a change after seven years on the commission, including four as chairman.

“Having completed a bold and aggressive agenda, it is time for me to pursue other opportunities and let someone else take the reins of the agency,” Powell said, providing no indication of his next move.

Many Beltway observers said the notion that Powell “completed” his deregulatory agenda was laughable, noting the uncertainty surrounding indecency rules, media ownership guidelines and laws governing wireline telephone competition. However, Powell's most effective efforts arguably have come in the wireless industry.

Under Powell, U.S. spectrum policy has been overhauled, with a focus on giving companies a chance to use underutilized airwaves to develop new services. While many wireless engineers believe the FCC has been too aggressive in its policies and is inviting future interference problems — particularly in its push for broadband over power line (BPL) technology — many believe that Powell's efforts set the stage to resolve much of the spectrum shortage that has plagued the mobile industry in recent years.

Powell's highest-profile work in the wireless arena was negotiating an order designed to mitigate interference to public-safety communications caused by commercial carriers such as Nextel Communications. Heavily criticized for taking more than three years to resolve the complex issue, the FCC order calls for public safety to receive additional spectrum in the band and not have to pay any rebanding costs — a fact noted by Charles Werner, deputy chief for the Charlottesville, Va., fire department.

“As one public-safety representative, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the steadfast leadership by FCC Chairman Michael Powell regarding public-safety communications,” Werner said in a statement. “Without his leadership, many issues — especially 800 MHz interference — would have failed.”

One wireless subject not resolved during Powell's tenure is the sticky issue of getting TV broadcasters to clear analog channels in the 700 MHz band for commercial and public-safety purposes. Powell and fellow Republican Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy reportedly favored a proposal from Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree to count cable and satellite TV viewers in the calculation needed to force broadcasters to vacate the spectrum.

However, Powell's resignation and the expected near-term departures of both Abernathy and Ferree make it seem unlikely that the FCC will address the 700 MHz matter during the first half of this year, according to Precursor wireless strategist Rudy Baca.

“[The 700 MHz issue] just goes into limbo” at the FCC, Baca said, speculating that Congress may have to address the matter.

Speculation regarding replacements for Powell and Abernathy on the FCC has been rampant inside the Beltway. Current favorites to fill the voids are Becky Klein, former chair of the Texas Public Utility Commission, and Earl Comstock, a former aide to Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Another possibility that has gained traction is Pat Wood, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. When President George W. Bush was elected to his first term, many expected Wood to be named FCC chairman at that time. Most analysts believe Wood would join the FCC only if promised the chairman's role.

If Wood is not appointed to the commission, the field to replace Powell as chairman is considered wide open. Among the potential newcomers to the FCC, Klein is believed to be the most prepared to become the commission's chair. However, the experience of Republican Commissioner Kevin Martin should not be ignored, according to a report from Medley Global Advisors telecom analyst Jessica Zufolo.

“Martin is currently viewed as the most likely replacement for Powell and may take over as acting chairman once Powell departs,” Zufolo states in her report. “Martin has an advantage over other candidates in that he could be elevated to chairman without going through a Senate confirmation process.”