Powell’s Master Plan

There’s been little talk of the direction newly-anointed FCC chairman Michael Powell plans to take the agency, outside the mouthing of various platitudes he made following his nomination, where he pledged to make the FCC even more friendly to big business interests in Washington.

Powell has finally unveiled a little more about his strategic plan for the FCC: he presented an outline of it in late May as testimony to a Congressional committee chewing over the FCC’s latest budget request.

From the testimony, it’s clear that Powell is planning on keeping his mitts off the “public interest'” side of the agency’s mission, choosing to focus almost exclusively on providing the best service he can to his “customers” – media corporations.

Powell was quick to describe his vision in the layered rhetoric of corporate-speak: he described the purview of oversight powers the FCC has as a “portfolio,” and his budget request is a “business plan” that will “encourage economic growth in the communications sector.” Mention of any sort of hint of a public interest standard was nonexistent, and the public was repeatedly (and exclusively) referred to as “the consumer.”

Touting the FCC’s ability to produce hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue through the auction of spectrum and other regulatory fee collections, Powell delved into his “business plan.” He was surprisingly blunt about what the FCC’s past role in the media marketplace really was: it had nothing to do with public interest all along – it was really about preserving the “regulated monopoly and oligarchy” that serves corporate interests first and the people second – if at all.

To fit this model of the past onto the mostly-uncharted future of the “digital era,” of communications, Powell is crafting a plan chock full of corporate welfare. “The conditions for experimentation and change and the flow of money to support new ventures have often been misunderstood or neglected,” he told the assembled politicians. “If the infrastructure is never invented, is never deployed, or lacks economic viability we will not see even a glimmer of the bright future we envision.”

Seeing as how the media industry is one of the most profitable of all industries in America, the idea of taxpayer dollars going to further fatten bottom lines is pretty disturbing. The keystone of Powell’s proposal for the FCC’s future is one of “hands-off” regulation: he plans to review the FCC’s entire regulatory structure to make sure nothing gets in the way of media moguls running free from any meaningful oversight. If they find any rules that interfere with this plan, “we will eliminate them.”

Rekindling the “War on Pirates?”

Probably the most interesting part of Powell’s testimony came in the area of FCC enforcement activity. Powell also plans to re-work enforcement strategies to shift efforts “from constantly expanding the bevy of permissive regulations to strong and effective enforcement of truly necessary ones.”

In addition Powell plans to “request Congress’ help to put real teeth into our enforcement efforts.”

In his concluding remarks, Powell even mentioned microradio specifically, signaling that a renewed war on pirate radio may be in the making.

“We are not here to find a solution to every problem related to communications. We cannot handle everyone’s telephone bill, review every cellular tower siting, or ensure that everyone in the United States has access to the most expensive equipment in his or her home,” said Powell.

“We can promote an atmosphere of competition where we step into the picture to ensure fairness of process, to stop predatory and anti-competitive behavior, and to make certain that the airwaves are free from clutter and pirates.” [Emphasis added]

Even more disturbing was the military analogy Powell drew at the very end of his testimony. Sounding much like his father, the dubious military “hero” and current Secretary of State Colin Powell, he closed with the following:

“No army, for example, can know in advance what it will find when it engages on the battlefield. The fog and terror of war never afford the luxury of predictability. The key to success is to have a force that is well-trained in tactics, strategy and the weapons it will need.”

Behind the Bravado

Remember, though, that the FCC has been fighting an uphill battle against pirates all along: understaffed and underfunded, the agency has nowhere near the resources it would need to conduct a full-scale sweep of America’s airwaves.

In addition to these hurdles, the “radio cops'” weaponry is quickly becoming antiquated, and there’s also a looming personnel crisis on the agency’s horizon.

In late May Michigan Congressman Fred Upton, the chairman of a House subcommittee with oversight powers over the FCC, toured the agency’s main engineering laboratory in Columbia, Maryland.

In an interview with National Journal’s Technology Daily magazine, Upton expressed shock at the condition of the equipment the FCC’s engineers have to work with.

“It was almost like going back to 10th-grade chemistry lab and finding it unchanged,” remarked Upton, who also noted that FCC staffers have (more than once) had to build their own gear from scratch to do their jobs.

Upton says he plans to hold a hearing on the FCC’s equipment crisis sometime in the late summer or early fall of 2001.

Then, there is the “brain drain” looming at the agency: over the next four years, between one-third and one-half of the FCC’s engineering and technical experts will be eligible for retirement. Replacing those employees will be tough, especially since government service isn’t nearly as lucrative as a job in the private sector.

To combat this Chairman Powell is planning to make the FCC a more “employee-friendly” workplace, embarking on ambitious program to let nearly all FCC staffers telecommute to work at least part of the time.

This might be good news to unlicensed broadcasters, as such a distributed workforce leads to a dilution in the force the FCC may bring to bear on pirates in the field.

Still, it’s clear that behind the rhetoric lies an agency still not up to snuff when it comes to cracking down on electronic civil disobedience. That keeps the ball firmly in our court – for now.