The FCC's Michael Powell.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Feb. 19 2003 3:59 PM

The Real Michael Powell

The FCC chairman is Al Gore in Republican clothing.

When Michael Powell was named chairman of the Federal Communications Commission two years ago, Washington observers pegged him as an ideological right-winger. The image has stuck. Yet the real Michael Powell is something else entirely. He's an earnest technocrat, out of place in the politically calculating Bush administration. In approach, if not in style or politics, Powell is the closest thing to Al Gore in official Washington today.


Granted, Powell's views are to the right of his predecessors, Reed Hundt and Bill Kennard. He talks more about eliminating regulatory requirements than about promoting fair competition and a diversity of market participants. (Disclosure: I served as counsel for New Technology Policy at the FCC during Hundt's and Kennard's terms. Powell was named a commissioner shortly before I left.) But Powell's not a fire-breathing conservative and shill for big business. Like Gore, he's a wonk with an abiding interest in policy minutiae and a deep faith in technology.

Starting Feb. 20, Powell's FCC will adopt a series of rule changes that could reshape the telephone and media industries. To implement the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Powell's predecessors adopted rules that require local phone companies to share their networks with competitors. Powell wants to scrap some of those so-called "unbundling" requirements. As with most telecom policy battles, the details are obscure, but the winners and losers are not. "Baby Bell" phone companies like Verizon and SBC want to change the rules, and new local competitors like AT&T and broadband provider Covad want to keep them. Billions of dollars, and the fate of dozens of companies, hang in the balance.

Powell is with the Baby Bells, but he's not really for them. The companies say they are itching to build wondrous new networks, but that doing so is counterproductive when their competitors can share the benefits. They promise that scaling back unbundling will spur new investment and help pull the telecom sector out of its doldrums.

Contrary to popular belief, Powell doesn't buy this argument. Asked at a conference two weeks ago how he can trust the Baby Bells' promises, Powell responded, "I have one rule: I don't trust any companies." He explained that he was focused on the coming transition to digital broadband networks and on pushing "facilities-based" competition. In other words, Powell hopes competitors will build their own networks or employ new platforms such as wireless, cable, and Internet telephony (used by companies such as Vonage). He wants to allow the market to move toward the technological transformation he foresees. The Bells will benefit in the short run, but to Powell that's incidental.

Powell's efforts hit a snag last week when his fellow Republican FCC commissioner, Kevin Martin, pushed an alternative plan. Opponents of Powell and the Baby Bells cheered, but the dust-up reinforces Powell's maverick status. Martin, who is politically well-connected to the White House, wants to give state regulators more power to interpret the unbundling rules. It's a classic conservative states' rights argument. Powell is the one pushing for an energetic federal policy.

Since taking over at the FCC, Powell has shown that he's not a libertarian true believer, hell-bent on dismantling regulation. In October, the FCC blocked the proposed merger of direct broadcast satellite competitors DirecTV and EchoStar, claiming it would harm competition. It was the first time the FCC blocked a media deal in 30 years. And Powell did it with gusto, acting before the Justice Department finished its review.

Rather than push to scale back the agency, Powell has done the thankless work of reinventing it. He's beefed up the FCC's technical and economic expertise by instituting training programs and hiring more engineers in the past 18 months than the FCC hired over the previous 20 years. He pushes FCC lawyers to craft their analyses to hew closely to judicial and congressional mandates.

The unbundling battle shows that Powell isn't protecting monopolies out of a belief that bigger is always better. He's looking to create a market where those monopolies will die if they don't respond aggressively to new kinds of competition. That's cold comfort to the companies who will suffer. And Powell may be wrong. Absent the current regulatory safeguards, the big players may indeed stomp out competition and raise prices. Correct or not, though, Powell is making a dramatic bet on new technology.

He's made similar bets in other areas. A year ago Powell's FCC authorized ultra-wideband, a radical wireless technology that, because is uses extremely low power, can coexist with existing services such as cellular telephony and TV broadcasts. The military, public safety groups, and broadcasters had delayed its approval for years. Powell also convened a spectrum task force that recommended major changes in the way the FCC regulates the airwaves, including greater support for unlicensed wireless technologies like Wi-Fi.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.