Michael Powell was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He graduated from the College of William and Mary, where he was initiated into Theta Delta Chi, on an ROTC Scholarship. Powell served as an armor officer in the United States Army. He spent the majority of his active service with the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Amberg, Germany, serving as a cavalry platoon leader and troop executive officer. In 1987, Powell was seriously injured during a training mission. He and his unit were traveling in a convoy on the autobahn. Powell was riding in a jeep at the time. Due to heavy rain, the jeep crashed and Powell was ejected from the vehicle. After he hit the pavement, the jeep bounced and crashed down on Powell's midsection.
Half of Powell's pelvis had snapped off its rear anchor on the lower spine. In the front, it had ripped free of the cartilage connecting it to its other half. His bladder and urethra were torn and several vertebrae were cracked.
After initial attention from German emergency room doctors, Powell was flown to a U.S. Army hospital in Nuremberg. After being stabilized, he was flown to Washington, D.C. and admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he spent a year in recovery. To this day, his spine is still fused at its base, forcing him to walk with a slight forward pitch.
After his rehabilitation he served as an expert advisor to the Secretary of Defense. Powell later received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit. He then worked for a year and a half as a private attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of O’Melveny & Myers, an L.A.-based firm, as well as in the antitrust division of the Justice Department for a year.
As the chairman of the FCC, Powell led the charge to open up markets in VoIP, Wi-Fi, and Broadband over Powerline (BPL). His approach believed that these new communications technologies would allow small companies to take on established corporations, and that regulations often stood in the way of progress.
His deregulatory policy coincided with a period of significant consolidation in the communications market. He advocated an updating of media ownership rules to reflect new communications technologies such as the Internet, a move that critics derided as increasing rampant media consolidation. He opposed applying telephone-era regulations to new Internet technologies, a move critics charged would deny open access to communications facilities. He articulated a policy of network neutrality, and in March 2005 fined Madison River Communications for blocking voice over IP applications, the first-ever government action of its kind. Powell worked so consumers could keep phone numbers when switching wireless carriers and championed the National Do Not Call Registry.
A defining moment of his tenure as FCC Chairman was the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show controversy, in which Janet Jackson's breast was exposed on live-broadcast television. This high-profile incident increased public attention toward the FCC's enforcement of indecency rules, which had already stepped up following Bono's use of an expletive on live TV. Powell himself later said that the controversy was overblown, although he recognized that it would cause concern when he saw it at a Super Bowl party. In an interview with ESPN The Magazine, he stated, "I think we’ve been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on. Part of it was surreal, right? Look, I think it was dumb to happen, and they knew the rules and were flirting with them, and my job is to enforce the rules, but, you know, really? This is what we’re gonna do?" In the aftermath, the FCC processed hundreds times more complaints than they had ever received.
Howard Stern and other controversial on-air personalities felt the sting of record fines, and both the U.S. House and Senate separately approved legislation significantly increasing the amount of money a station could be fined for indecency. Although the legislation was not ultimately enacted, the climate in Washington became so grey that several TV stations across the country declined to air Saving Private Ryan on Veterans Day for fear of FCC fines. Powell was interviewed on San Francisco talk radio station KGO (AM) when Stern called in to confront Powell. Stern questioned Powell's credentials, saying he got the job only because of his father and accused Powell of targeting him and fining him large amounts of money.
Some of Powell's initiatives have been challenged in federal court. Notably, the FCC's BrandX cable modem service decision, which declared cable modem should be free from telephone service regulations, was overturned in the Ninth Circuit case but was reinstated by the Supreme Court. The FCC's Broadcast Flag proceeding was overturned by the D.C. Circuit Court as an inappropriate exercise of FCC jurisdiction. The FCC's Media Ownership rules were likewise blocked by federal court and the television ownership cap set directly by the U.S. Congress.
During his Chairmanship he was invited to speak at the University of California, San Diego on January 26, 2004. The video is available on-line through the University of California, and is titled: FCC's Michael Powell: Charting the Future of the Telecom Industry. In the talk Powell spoke about the process of effecting change in Washington. He also spoke about Ultra-wideband and speculated on the effect it would have on telecommunications.
In a notable confrontation over the FCC's local telephone competition rules, Powell was outflanked by Republican Kevin Martin, who formed a majority with the FCC's two Democratic commissioners. Powell was later vindicated by a D.C. Circuit Court decision on March 2, 2004 that struck down Martin's order. Three months later, the U.S. Supreme Court let the D.C. Circuit decision stand. When Powell resigned, Kevin Martin, who served George W. Bush's presidential campaign in Florida, was named the FCC's new Chairman. Martin has subsequently purged the FCC of many of Powell's staff.
While at the FCC, Powell was also the FCC’s Defense Commissioner and oversaw all National Security Emergency Preparedness functions for the Commission.
Powell resigned as Chairman of the FCC on January 21, 2005. He said that he was glad to spend more time with his wife. In March 2006, Powell became a member of the board of trustees, for the RAND Corporation. He served two terms as a member of the Board of Visitors at his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, from 2002 to 2009. On April 21, 2006, Powell was elected the Rector of the Board of Visitors, making him the first African-American to serve in that post in the College's 313-year history. He served as rector for two terms, stepping down on July 1, 2009.
In 2013, Powell was a signatory to an amicus curiae brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage during the Hollingsworth v. Perry case.
On March 15, 2011, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) announced that Powell would take the helm from Kyle McSlarrow beginning April 25. Powell left his advisory role with Providence Equity Partners. In 2012, he spoke with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and gave the keynote speech during the industry's Cable Show. In April 2012, he contributed an opinion piece to Politico about the importance of cyber threats.
As a lobbyist representing the telecommunications companies, Powell published numerous editorials and opinion pieces around the country claiming to support net neutrality and opposing the FCC's enforcement of net neutrality through broadband reclassification as a Title II service.