The next person to sit on the Federal Communications Commission may very well decide some of the most important issues facing our nation. The Senate must be very careful and very public when it considers the president’s choice to fill the spot vacated by Michael Powell.
In an age when our economy, our schools and our health care system – indeed our national security – have become so dependent upon our national communications infrastructure and the rules that guide its operation, few new federal appointments will be as important.
With all due respect to Mr. Powell, the American public deserves a better guardian over our information infrastructure. In his parting note to the public, Mr. Powell cited the "exploding" use of a variety of electronic gadgets as evidence of his success. A closer examination of the Powell record suggests a very different legacy, a legacy at odds with what the Senate wanted and the public needed.
The FCC is an independent agency of the federal government charged with ensuring that the broadcast, cable and telephone industries operate for the good of all Americans. In the Information Age, few federal agencies are as central to our lives. The FCC is the agency that sets the communication rules for emergency workers, like the police and firefighters in New York and Washington on Sept. 11. The FCC can delay funding for telecommunication assistance to schools, libraries and health care facilities. Citizens were informed, misinformed or uninformed in the election of 2004 because of the radio and television stations the FCC licenses to use the public spectrum. But Mr. Powell would like to be remembered for his glancing connection to the personal video recorder.
Mr. Powell arrived at the FCC announcing his unfamiliarity with what he called "the angel of the public interest," and then asserted that the digital divide was no more serious than the Mercedes divide. As chairman, Mr. Powell forced through rules to allow greater media consolidation. Even though those rules were overwhelmingly rejected by both houses of Congress and a federal court, the Powell years have brought us greater consolidation in the broadcast, cable and telecommunications industries. And according to Consumer’s Union, Powell’s reign has brought us higher consumer prices as well.
In addition to these failures, there are a variety of important issues Powell leaves unresolved. Television’s transition to digital remains uncertain. How true competition will be achieved in the telephone industry is still in doubt. And the different rules for how the Internet will be treated as it operates over cable versus telephone lines have yet to be sorted out. Perhaps the only thing Mr. Powell, a former champion of the First Amendment, will be remembered for is his vehement disapproval of the display of Janet Jackson’s breast.
While Mr. Powell was a commissioner, less than a year before he became chairman, Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Robert Byrd, and Sam Brownback wrote to the FCC that "the time has come for the Commission to engage in a broad reexamination of the public interest standard, and the license renewal process, to determine if in fact the broadcasters are serving ‘the public interest, convenience, and necessity,’ and whether the standard of service we expect of broadcasters should be clarified." Of all Mr. Powell’s failings, perhaps the most egregious was that he ignored this bipartisan plea.
The FCC is supposed to monitor the most dynamic communications environment in the world on behalf of all Americans, not just those who can afford the latest gadgets. The Senate must take seriously its responsibility to review and consider the next appointment, and make certain that the public interest is not ignored again. We need a true public servant at the FCC, someone with heart and head enough to provide all Americans with an information infrastructure that serves them as citizens and as consumers.
Perhaps with enough pressure, the media will provide as much coverage of the Senate’s consideration of the next FCC commissioner as they provide to Paris Hilton’s next romance.
Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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