Federal Communications Commission chief Julius Genachowski said Friday that he's stepping down after a four-year term in which he won praise for expanding public access to the Internet and the airwaves, but was criticized for moving too slowly on some thorny tech issues -- leaving them for the next FCC chair to confront.
Genachowski's resignation opens the door for President Barack Obama to nominate a new FCC leader from a list of potential candidates that reportedly includes Washington-based tech investor Tom Wheeler, several current administration officials and Santa Clara University law professor Catherine Sandoval, who's on the California Public Utilities Commission.
As the Obama administration's top communications regulator, Genachowski launched new programs that extended broadband service to underserved parts of the country. He also took steps to provide new wireless frequencies for a nation that's increasingly using mobile devices to go online.
Those initiatives won praise from the tech industry, whose leaders had regular access to Genachowski during his frequent visits to Silicon Valley over the years. Rey Ramsey, head of the influential industry group TechNet, said Friday that Genachowski "has been a strong advocate for American innovation and economic growth."
Consumer advocates also lauded Genachowski's efforts to expand Internet access, while praising him for joining with the Justice Department to block a proposed mega-merger between AT&T and T-Mobile in 2011, on grounds it would decrease competition in the phone industry.
But critics chafed at Genachowski's slow and painstaking approach to one of the most complex issues of his tenure, known as "net neutrality," in which the FCC tried to develop rules aimed at preventing telecom operators like Verizon and Comcast from giving unequal treatment or restricting the network traffic that's essential for Internet businesses, from small Web startups to giants like Netflix (NFLX) and Google (GOOG).
Telecom executives complained the FCC's proposals would obstruct their ability to compete and earn the revenue they need to meet growing demand on their networks. Consumer groups accused the chairman of giving too much ground in search of compromise and failing to assert the commission's authority after court decisions undercut its jurisdiction over broadband providers.
"Chairman Genachowski's term can best be described as one of missed opportunities," the watchdog group Public Knowledge said Friday. "He had the opportunity, but declined, to solidify the agency's authority and ability to protect consumers with regard to broadband."
The commission ultimately proposed a set of net neutrality rules that are now tied up in a federal court challenge.
Consumer groups said they were especially disappointed with Genachowski because he staked out a bold agenda when he was named to the post in 2009. They also criticized his role in approving other deals that allowed industry giants Comcast and Verizon to grow bigger.
"He stood by as prices rose and competition dwindled" in the broadband industry, said Craig Aaron of Free Press, a group that focuses on communications policy. "He claimed to be a staunch defender of the Internet, but his net neutrality policies are full of loopholes and offer no guarantee that the FCC will be able to protect consumers."
Tech advocates, however, said Genachowski had a huge impact in promoting high-speed Internet service throughout the nation. During his tenure, the FCC overhauled a program aimed at delivering telephone service to rural areas and changed its focus to providing broadband access. Genachowski also raised goals for Internet speeds and oversaw development of a plan to auction off unused television broadcast frequencies to increase the spectrum available for wireless devices -- although that plan has yet to be implemented.
"Consumers and industry alike will benefit for years to come thanks to Genachowski's service at the FCC," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association.
While the television industry has fought with Genachowski over the spectrum auctions, its leading trade group issued a conciliatory statement Friday.
"The FCC chair is arguably one of the most difficult jobs in Washington, and yet Julius consistently performed with dedication and focus," said Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Genachowski's resignation had been widely expected in Washington and leaves two vacancies on the commission, after member Robert McDowell resigned earlier this week.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.