Wireless World: Powell's legacy at the FCC

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI   |   Jan. 28, 2005 at 3:26 PM
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CHICAGO, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell disclosed last week that he is resigning, and analysts already are remarking that his tenure on the FCC was marked by dramatic changes in telecom regulation.

Perhaps the most dramatic was the emergence of wireless fidelity, or WiFi, technology, something that is changing mobile computing -- creating networks, both corporate and collegiate, and enabling people to remain wirelessly connected while on the move.

Other telecommunication technologies that received heightened attention during Powell's tenure at the commission include high-speed networks, cable modems and telecommunications over power lines. The Powell FCC also allowed Americans to keep their mobile phone numbers when they switched carriers -- a process called number portability -- that had been discussed for more than a decade.

To be sure, there were high-profile battles over indecent on-air content -- involving personalities such as so-called shock jock Howard Stern and breast-baring pop star Janet Jackson -- and concerns over concentration of media ownership, both of which generated a lot of national news coverage.

The technology changes most likely will be viewed as Powell's long-term impact on public policy, analysts told UPI's Wireless World.

"Powell's stands on media ownership and indecency have gotten a lot of public attention, but far more significant may be the change of course he engineered in telecom regulation," said economist Jerry Ellig, of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., a noted expert on telecom regulation. This included a "focus on competition by folks who build their own network, rather than competitors sharing the same network."

President George W. Bush appointed Powell as FCC chairman in 2001, but the Republican son of the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and former secretary of state was initially appointed to the commission by President Bill Clinton in the fall of 1997.

Some experts are concerned the loss of Powell could mean an erosion of the free-market emphasis the commission has promoted for the past eight years, if another free-marketer is not appointed to replace him.

"Michael Powell's resignation means the loss of a strong philosophical voice for allowing free markets to take their course in telecommunications and consumer-information technology," said Steven Titch, senior fellow in IT and telecom policy at the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank in Chicago. "Powell took over the FCC as new technologies, including wireless and (Voice over Internet Protocol) began to break down the regulatory structure, because they offered consumers and entrepreneurs an escape from price controls, cross-subsidies and discriminatory taxes that the U.S. government had gradually constructed."

This has dampened the power once wielded by the former Bell system telephone companies. VOIP and other new telecom technologies advocated by Powell are "about to revolutionize telecommunications markets once dominated by regulated monopolies like the old Bell system," said Jim Penhune, director of broadband media and communications service at Strategy Analytics, a research consultancy in Boston.

A ruling in November by the FCC stated that carriers of VOIP -- both wireless and land-based -- were exempt from most state regulation and taxation. Long-term, that is expected to result in lower prices for most telephone calls.

Powell, 41, is a lawyer by training. Like his father, he too served as an Army officer. He retired from the armed forces after a training accident forced him to spend a year in the hospital. He graduated from the College of William and Mary and earned his doctorate in jurisprudence from Georgetown University Law Center. Prior to coming to the FCC, he was an adviser to Dick Cheney when he was secretary of defense, and served as the chief of staff of the anti-trust division at the Department of Justice. He is married and has two children, and lives in suburban Washington, D.C.

"During my tenure, we worked to get the law right in order to stimulate innovative technology that puts more power in the hands of American consumers," Powell said in a statement to the media. "The seeds of our policies are taking firm root in the marketplace and are starting to blossom. The use of cell phones, digital televisions, personal video recorders and digital music players is exploding. Those devices are increasingly connected anytime, anywhere by a wide variety of broadband networks, enabling a host of competitive services and new applications."

There are critics of Powell's policies. The telecommunications industry thinks Powell he has sided with consumers too often, resulting in a consolidation in the IT marketplace for some technologies. Third generation, or 3G, telecom networks in the United States still lag behind Europe, as does broadband deployment. Not all of FCC's decisions under Powell were deregulatory. There were "complex mandates" that forced the developers of digital TV technology to work with broadcasters and cable companies, Penhune said.

Others think Powell, with his White House connections, took too active a role in politics, particularly during the last presidential election.

"Powell got pushed sideways by the White House to go after Janet Jackson, Stern, et cetera, to please Bush's base -- the religious right," said Tom McPhail, a professor of media studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

The next FCC chairman -- Bush has not yet named a successor -- is going to face similar pressures.

"The next chairman will face the same challenge -- creating meaningful, applicable policies in an environment where computers, consumer electronics, wireless communications and the Internet have come together," Titch said.


Gene Koprowski is a 2004 Winner of the Lilly Scholarship for journalism, based on this column for United Press International. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

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