A careful hand on FCC throttle

Jan 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

For Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, 2002 appears to be turning into a year of study and reflection. Who would have thought it?
When President Bush named Mr. Powell to head the FCC last January, the sky was the deregulatory limit, and the industry was counting on major action-especially since the new chairman had the support of the White House and Republican leaders in the Senate and House.
But all that changed several months later when the GOP lost its hold on the Senate and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., a major critic of deregulation, assumed command of the key committees that oversee the agency and its budget.
Since then, the deregulatory rhetoric has cooled, and Mr. Powell has been launching studies and naming task forces.
Instead of axing rules himself, he’s biding his time, trying to build bombproof cases for the kinds of regulatory relief he has in mind. In some cases, according to his critics, he appears to be waiting and hoping for the courts to intercede and throw the regulations out for him.
“Sen. Hollings is keeping Powell honest,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy.
Some industry sources say Mr. Powell’s caution is understandable because Sen. Hollings has been known to use every trick in the book, including appropriation bill riders, to force his druthers on government agencies. So it’s important for Mr. Powell, his supporters say, to have the best defense he can in place before taking on the lawmaker.
“He [Mr. Powell] can’t sit on these things forever,” an industry source said. “He’s got to do something for his credibility. Otherwise it will look like Sen. Hollings is running the FCC.”
For his part, Mr. Powell insists he might have launched the studies anyway, even if Republicans had kept their hold on the Senate.
“You have to have a record, and you have to have a basis to fix the things you claim were a shortcoming,” Mr. Powell said in an interview with Electronic Media.
“I don’t get overly ruffled by some industry segments that think this should be faster because they could benefit,” he added. “One year in the life of rules that have been around 30 years to me is not particularly dramatic.”
Steering the course
At least according to industry sources, the chairman’s best hope for a quick deregulatory win may be to ax the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, which bars daily newspapers from buying broadcast stations in their communities. It’s already teed up for action. The major fly in the ointment once again, however, is that Sen. Hollings supports the rule.
“The train’s on the tracks, and it’s up to us to prove the case,” said Shaun Sheehan, Washington vice president for Tribune Co.
Said Mr. Powell, “There’s a vehicle on the ramp for that to be considered. Certainly that is on course.”
Mr. Powell has also made clear that he wants to get the agency ball rolling on spectrum reform, an initiative that could eventually make it easier for broadcasters and others to sell their frequencies for new uses. Under existing FCC rules, spectrum use is strictly limited. For instance, channels allocated for broadcasting are supposed to be used for broadcasting, period, even if wireless radio operators would be willing to pay for the privilege of using them to expand their services.
“What we’re trying to do is create a world where spectrum can get to more productive uses that are more highly valued by consumers,” Mr. Powell explained.
Congressional leaders have also been leaning on the FCC in hopes that the agency will make the transition to DTV a bigger priority.
“We can be a really good neutral forum to try to bring the parties together where they’re far apart, and I think that’s healthy,” Mr. Powell said.
Despite Mr. Powell’s reputation as a deregulator and market enthusiast-one he developed over several years in his original run at the FCC as a Clinton administration appointment-he has demonstrated that he’s not a captive of the broadcasting industry.
Indeed, he has been annoying broadcasters recently by publicly musing about whether spectrum is needed to deliver TV signals in an era when the vast majority of the public gets satellite or cable.
“There is some truth to the fact that if trends continue in which the mass market is not actually using the airwaves as a vehicle for receiving the product, then there’s a danger that the spectrum is underutilized,” Mr. Powell said.
Taking on the market-makers
The chairman also says federal regulators want to get back at least one of the two channels that broadcasters now have at their disposal during the transition from analog to digital television. That desire, he said, has spurred renewed interest in encouraging the transition.
“There’s a much more palpable recognition that one spectrum slice aside, two is definitely troubling for the long-term spectrum needs of the country,” Mr. Powell said. “When you combine that with the trends of viewers, it definitely says the government and the industry should be looking to facilitate the return of that spectrum or the kind of market principles that will allow it to move to better uses.”
He has also rankled broadcasters by making clear his skepticism about their quest for a rule that would force cable operators to carry both the analog and the digital signals of broadcasters during the transition to digital TV.
Indeed, broadcasters apparently have enough concerns about Mr. Powell that the National Association of Broadcasters was declining comment on him for this article.
But what’s bad news for many broadcasters is good news for cable.
“He has been unwavering in his commitment to market forces,” said Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. “In the long run, we believe that market forces serve consumer interests better than government-imposed solutions.”
Mr. Powell, 38, is the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. His chief sponsor for his original FCC appointment, which began in November 1997, was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Like his father before him, Mr. Powell originally tried to make a career in the U.S. Army. But he went to law school in 1990 after he broke his pelvis in a military Jeep accident and was forced to convalesce in a hospital for a year.
Mr. Powell and his wife, Jane Knott Powell, live with their two children in the Virginia suburbs.