President Bush on March 16 elevated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) member Kevin Martin to chairman of an agency clamping down on broadcast indecency as it faces tough challenges in the ever-evolving age of the internet. Among these challenges are deciding how voice over IP services–widely referred to as VoIP–will be regulated and overhauling the Universal Service Fund, which pays for the eRate.

Martin, who has been an FCC commissioner since 2001, replaces Michael Powell in the top job. Powell, son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, had announced in January that he was leaving this month after four years in the top post.

In a brief statement, Martin thanked Bush and the outgoing chairman, lauding Powell for his “excellent stewardship of this agency.”

“I look forward to continuing his efforts in bringing the communications industry into the 21st century,” Martin said.

The FCC has taken on an increasingly critical role in the life of America with the explosive growth in the telecommunications industry.

Martin, 38, a Republican, was born in Charlotte, N.C. He worked at the White House for Bush as an economic adviser and served as a deputy general counsel on Bush’s first campaign. His wife, Catherine, is a special assistant to the president on economic policy and previously worked as an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Because he already is a member of the FCC, Martin’s promotion, which had been widely expected, does not need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Martin and Powell have not always seen eye to eye, most notably in 2003 when Martin allied with the FCC’s two Democrats on a key vote over phone competition rules.

Powell on March 16 congratulated Martin and pledged “complete cooperation” on the transition.

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    “His wide knowledge of telecommunication policy issues and insight into the rapidly changing nature of communications technology will serve the agency well,” Powell said in a statement.

    As chairman, Martin would lead an agency that regulates phone, broadcast, internet, and other telecommunications services. Among the issues the agency will likely tackle in the near future are the digital TV transition; another stab at revising news-media ownership rules; whether to approve a spate of phone industry mega-mergers; and how to regulate internet phone calls.

    But the agency has been prominent in the public’s mind recently for tougher enforcement of the indecency guidelines that free, over-the-air radio and TV stations must follow.

    It probably was best known for the fine it levied on the so-called “wardrobe malfunction” involving entertainer Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl and for actions taken against bawdy radio shows and other programming deemed too racy for broadcast.

    Fines for indecent programming exceeded $7.7 million last year, including a total of $550,000 against 20 CBS-owned stations for the Super Bowl show. CBS is contesting the fine. Four years ago, FCC fines totaled just $48,000.

    Powell’s final FCC meeting was last week, and he has said he wanted to clear out of his office by March 18.

    The White House must still nominate a commissioner to the five-member FCC, which under the current political structure has three Republican slots and two Democratic ones. The Senate would have to approve that nomination.

    Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said he has recommended his former aide, Earl Comstock, to the White House for the open slot.

    Assistant Commerce Secretary Michael Gallagher–who is also head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration–was considered another possibility for FCC chief and might still be considered to become the third Republican commissioner.

    Gallagher already is one of Bush’s top advisers on telecommunications policy.

    Other names that have been mentioned include former Texas utilities regulator Rebecca Armendariz Klein and Pat Wood, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

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    GAO report blasts eRate oversight

    Links:

    Federal Communications Commission
    http://www.fcc.gov/