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Powell's Last Mile as FCC Chairman

WASHINGTON -- Seven years after joining the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Michael Powell bade a teary goodbye today at the conclusion of his 90th FCC open meeting.

"Government service is not lucrative and it takes a painful toll on you personally and your family," the often controversial Powell said. "It saddens me when public officials and bureaucrats are criticized for having alternative motives or when someone personalizes disagreements."

The 41-year-old Powell was often the target of such personalized attacks, frequently accused by consumer groups of serving the Bells' interests.

Powell was appointed to a Republican seat on the FCC by President Clinton in 1997, only one year after Congress passed the landmark 1996 Telecommunications Act. President George W. Bush selected him as chairman in 2001, replacing Democrat William Kennard.

Powell and the Republican majority that gained control of the FCC following Bush's 2000 election brought a different approach to telecommunications and the Internet, aggressively supporting moving voice, video and data transmissions away from the copper legacy networks of the Bells to a variety of minimally regulated broadband platforms.

His regulatory approach was that competition, particularly in the then-nascent broadband industry, was better served by multiple platforms providing bundled packages than the Kennard approach to mandating that the Bells provide open access at government-mandated prices to all competitors. The courts repeatedly sided with Powell.

"He was and is the broadband guy. He established a legacy that history will judge as a success," fellow Republican Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said.

After a standing ovation from the FCC staff and the audience, hugs from each FCC commissioner, Powell told the press he disliked legacy questions.

"I don't think your legacy usually lives in the issues because they'll change. Three years from now, they'll be some other hot topic [besides broadband]," Powell said at an impromptu press conference. "What you're really leaving behind is an institution that can endure and adapt, way more than the issue of the day. I never didn't want to get up and not come to work here."

Although Powell, the son of General Colin Powell (the former Secretary of State), is leaving a number of broadband issues dear to him still on the table, he said he had no regrets.

"I grew up in public life and I've sat with our station wagon packed, watching my father change commands," he said. "Could you do more? You could always do more, but it's time to go. It's like a merry-go-round, it's not going to stop spinning just because I jumped off."

He added, "I don't think I could pick a time when you couldn't say there was something else to be done. There's always something else to be done."

Powell, who plans to leave the FCC at the end of next week, said he had no immediate plans for his post-FCC life except to vacation in the Virgin Islands with his family. Besides lucrative opportunities in the private sector, Powell has been mentioned as a possible Virginia gubernatorial candidate.

"I made a real commitment not to really get out there until I really walked out the door, because I just think you can't focus on what you need to do here and be worrying about that," he said. "We'll go the beach, we'll read a good book and we'll start talking to people and thinking about it. I mean I have ideas, but I have a lot to do on that front."

He also said he had talked with the White House about his successor, but had no idea who it would be.

"We've had conversations about it a little bit, but that's their choice. I only give them my the benefit of my experience of the pros and cons of different things they think about," he said.

His advice to the next chairman of the FCC?

"I think there are really hard decisions to make and I believe it isn't easy, but my biggest advice is that you have to have the courage to be bold. Bold means controversy and bold means hard choices."