President Bush appoints new FCC chief

President Bush on Wednesday appointed Kevin Martin as chairman of the FCC and successor to Michael Powell, who became a lightning rod for controversy on some telecommunications and media issues.

The boyish-looking Martin, 38, has been serving as a Republican commissioner at the agency since 2001. He was deputy general counsel for Bush's first presidential campaign and worked on the Bush-Cheney transition team. He also served as special assistant to the president for economic policy at the White House.

Martin's elevation to chairman creates an opening for a GOP commissioner at the agency. The expected departure of Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy would create another GOP vacancy at the five-member agency. Abernathy's term expired last year, but she may stay until the slot is filled or until the end of this year.

Martin made a name for himself in February 2003 when he disagreed with Powell over whether rules governing traditional telephone wires should be liberalized. The two Democrats on the commission joined Martin to form the majority on that portion of the order, blocking Powell's efforts at deregulation.

Powell's position ultimately was vindicated by the federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and by the Bush administration when it declined to seek Supreme Court review of that decision.

Martin also generally has favored the broadcast industry over cable in their various battles at the agency. In February, for example, Martin cast the lone dissenting vote against the FCC decision that cable need not carry all of broadcasters' digital-television programs. In 2003, Martin and Powell voted in favor of a plan championed by Powell to relax rules on media ownership.

The announcement that Martin was selected as FCC chairman raised new questions about how the FCC will approach key telecom and media policy questions.

The most pressing question facing Martin is a request by Level 3, a competitor of the regional Bell telecom firms, that all Internet telephone calls traveling over traditional networks pay the cheaper rates borne by local phone companies, not those of long-distance providers.

Until now, Martin has been reluctant to join Powell and Abernathy in their efforts to approve the request. Bell and rural telephone companies have been lobbying hard against Level 3, which has strong support from technology companies, the MCI long-distance provider and Internet phone companies like Vonage.

The chief of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) last month wrote a personal letter to Bush urging him to appoint Martin as chairman. Other leading candidates for the post were Michael Gallagher, the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Becky Armandariz Klein, a former chairwoman of the Texas Public Utilities Commission.

ITI chief Rhett Dawson said Martin has sided with the technology industry on its key concerns, including his decision in 2003 to support Powell and Abernathy in loosening regulations governing high-speed Internet technologies like fiber-optic wires and cable modems.

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