A Deeper Look at the FCC from the Points of View of Its Former Leaders

by Tiffany Bain on February 18, 2013

Former FCC Chairs Wiley Powell and Hundt at 2013 BBSJ Summit - by Jason Miccolo JohnsonThe Minority Media and Telecommunications Council has long worked – and sometimes been at odds – with the Federal Communications Commission in MMTC’s efforts to ensure equal opportunity and civil rights in the mass media and telecommunications industries. To address FCC issues, MMTC recently invited four former FCC chairmen to an “FCC Chairs’ Roundtable” panel at its 2013 Broadband and Social Justice Summit.  During the panel, the former chairmen provided a deeper look into the federal agency and revealed their thoughts on a few communications industry regulatory matters.

Serving as the panel’s moderator, MMTC President David Honig used the historic opportunity to ask Hon. Michael Powell, Hon. Reed Hundt, Hon. Michael Copps, and Hon. Richard “Dick” Wiley about why the FCC moves so slowly to consider and rule on issues that have been pending for several years. He also inquired about their thoughts on hot-button issues such as media cross-ownership rules and broadband usage-based pricing.

Inquiring minds want to know: Why is the FCC so slow?

As stated in Honig’s 2013 State of Broadband and Social Justice Address, several minority ownership proposals that MMTC has petitioned have been pending at the FCC for more than 10 years. Additionally, a media incubator proposal MMTC submitted has been pending for 23 years in seven consecutive dockets. Due to the slow movement on the proposals that MMTC has brought to the FCC, Honig questioned whether the FCC was reluctant to adopt these proposals because they are civil rights issues.

All of the commissioners agreed that the FCC takes long to make a ruling on various pending issues, but they assured Honig that many of the pending petitions are not all civil rights matters. The former chairs cited the pace of advancing technology, a voluminous workload, and stagnation in the legislative branch as contributing factors to the FCC’s apparent ineffectiveness.

“I think you have to just accept that it’s an agency that’s structured around a 1934 model of the administrative state,” Powell, who served during the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, began. “[It is] a model that developed at a time when the pace of technological change, innovation transformation, and business activity were substantially slower and more stable.”

Wiley shared a similar position to Powell, but added that the amount of pending issues and the delay they caused “bugged” him. The former chair  also said that while it was not easy during his tenure from 1970 to 1977, he chose the issues that “had the longest shelf life” at the time, and he and his staff then came to a consensus on what the Commission should take up.

To expound upon the burden of a heavy docket, Hundt implied that the Commission often does not have the capacity to consider every petition.

“At the FCC, ‘maybe’ is a synonym for ‘no,’” the former chair who served under President Bill Clinton’s administration said. “It’s more pleasant to say to petitioners ‘maybe’ or ‘we’ll get to that’ when the reality is that those are synonyms for ‘no, we’re not really doing that.’ That’s the decoding of the language.”

He also noted that Congress, particularly Congresses similar to the “do-nothing” 112th Congress, makes issue consideration more difficult for the FCC, especially when what it can consider on an agenda is often green-lighted by the federal legislative body.

Copps, who is the only former chair on the panel who served as an acting chairman, suggested that more decision making at the Commission should be delegated to the bureaus and that an annual report be mandated to monitor what the FCC has done for the year.

What should be done in regards to media cross-ownership and consolidation?

Media cross-ownership has always been a controversial issue, and the leaders at the panel proved that it remains a divisive one. However, one thing that Wiley and Copps agree on is that something needs to be done on the 1975 ruling.

“The way in which consumers access information [and] the way in which the competitive marketplace was arrayed was dramatically different in 1975 than it is today,” Wiley said. “I think these rules are very outmoded [and] very counterproductive.”

He also mentioned that at the time of the original cross-ownership ruling, newspapers were dominant, and advancements such as cable and mobile communication were either in their infancy or had not even been developed.

Copps said that the ruling needs repairing and cited the thousands of media employees who experienced layoffs due to various media organizations’ consolidation across the nation.

“We need to put the brakes on consolidation,” Copps said. “And we need to get the Federal Communications Commission back in the business of protecting the public interest.”

Is broadband usage-based pricing a winning strategy?

A 2012 BBSJ article indicated that charging consumers based on the broadband data they use makes Internet more affordable and would likely boost Internet adoption rates for low-income and minority consumers since it diminishes the cost factor that prevents some people in these groups to adopt.

Powell agreed. To him, usage-based pricing signifies “fairness.”

“I personally believe that we worry about the 30 to 35 percent [of non-broadband adopters] who aren’t on the Web yet, but we’re not willing to entertain pricing approaches that may bring them on to the Web at a cost effective rate.”

Hundt also made suggestions on pricing reforms and providing  broadband to consumers. “The next FCC chair really does have to think really, really hard about the economic model, but the next chair does not have to think hard about the goal: faster, better, cheaper,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean faster, better, cheaper for the one percent, five percent, [or] ten percent. It means faster, better, cheaper for 100 percent.”

In addition to broadband usage-based pricing, cross-ownership, and the slowness of the Commission, the former FCC chairs shared their differing opinions on the Supreme Court’s potential overruling of Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969), the inevitability of the United States’ transitioning to an all IP (Internet Protocol) network by 2018, and whether a new Telecommunications Act is necessary.

The 2013 BBSJ Summit’s “Former FCC Chairs’ Roundtable” can be viewed in its entirety here.

  • Tiffany K. Bain is a 2011 public relations graduate of Florida A&M University. She currently serves as the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council’s Research Associate. She got her start in the industry in 2007 as an Emma L. Bowen Foundation intern at the nation’s leading cable provider.

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