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Q&A

Powell Says He'll Be Running the FCC for a While

Chairman brushes off criticism of his positions on phone competition and media ownership.

August 16, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Michael K. Powell isn't finished with the Federal Communications Commission.

Despite political setbacks and public rebukes that prompted speculation he would resign, the chairman of the agency regulating everything from telephone service to television broadcasts said he has no plans to quit.

"I'm not going anywhere just yet," Powell, 40, said this week in an interview with The Times.

Powell, appointed chairman by President Bush in 2001, has been the focus of criticism for the FCC's handling of two key decisions this year -- one on telephone competition and another on the rules governing media ownership.

Long an advocate of deregulation, Powell in February lost a bitter fight with his own commission when it voted to force regional Bell phone companies to continue leasing their lines to competitors. Then, last month, the House of Representatives voted to roll back a June FCC order that would have relaxed decades-old restrictions on how many television stations media conglomerates can own.

Powell, whose father is Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said he remains committed to telecommunication deregulation and to jump-starting the rollout of high-speed Internet connections.

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Question: You want to lead the nation to a new digital era of high-speed, or broadband, Internet access. But the pace of migration to digital seems threatened by issues the FCC doesn't have much authority over -- such as spam, piracy and the lack of privacy and security. How much of a challenge are these factors?

Answer: Copyright has been with us since the beginning of the republic. It has had to migrate through the invention of typewriters, Xerox machines and digital mediums. It's important for the country to work through those things. Fiber and other high-speed optical technologies are where we want to be.

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Q: What will motivate the phone companies to invest in broadband? Deregulation of new high-speed Internet markets? Or the fact that they are being challenged by competitors in traditional phone service?

A: It's not an either-or. I think you have to have a friendly environment toward innovation and investment but you also have to have competitive heat. There is nothing like a competitor breathing down your neck to focus your vision. Anybody who does not get across the river in the digital migration is going to get left behind. I don't care how big you are today. And we like that. In some ways people excessively focus on the deregulatory aspects of what we do in terms of incentives. But what's just as important is some of the things we are doing to keep competitive pressure on. Pro-market is not pro-business. If you are really pro-market you are actually quite hostile to business. If we are successful in creating free markets it's not something your average company is going to enjoy.

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Q: You have said the FCC's vote to reform media ownership rules was undertaken to address legal concerns over the old rules and to acknowledge the new reality of today's media environment where there are hundreds of cable channels and millions of Internet sites. But your arguments didn't seem to resonate with Congress or consumers.

A: I don't write the media rules. Congress writes the media rules. We implement them. So I believe the rules that we produced were a faithful reflection of what Congress had intended and what the courts held we were obligated to do. I am not free to do whatever the hell I feel like, whether it be deregulating or regulating. I will be the first to concede I didn't see this kind of outrage coming.

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Q: Some have suggested that one of your failures was that the media ownership rules approved by the FCC were considered as a package and not examined individually. So, basically, opponents could reduce their argument to "diversity, good; concentration, bad."

A: It's a fair argument. But here's why it's an incomplete one. One of the reasons the rules were at great risk is because of the incoherency of having been done individually. What did the court say to us about the rules? It said we can't make sense of you any more. You have one rule over here that says we count newspapers as a voice; you have another rule over here that says you don't. You have a rule over here that cable's in the market but over here, you act like they don't. You've got to fix this mess.

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Q: Some of your critics describe you as a scientific policymaker and say you ignore the art of policymaking. They say you need to do more to get people on board with your vision.

A: A huge part of what we do is scientific. We are a regulatory agency. We do an enormous amount of complex technical work that nobody wants to read about.

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