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The Importance of the FCC

Tom Evslin

My friend Om Malik, dean of the telecom bloggers and author of Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist, posted on the importance of the Federal Communications Commission Chair appointment Obama will make as President:

"The decision as to who will be appointed FCC Chair is a critical one, for in coming years the country faces some major issues that will need to be addressed head on — not from a corporate, but from a citizen perspective, including Network Neutrality, the availability of broadband, telecom competition and privacy....

"...President-elect Obama should look outside the beltway and find someone who truly represents the taxpayers.

"Tom Evslin, who is a retired telecom executive, is the kind of person I would expect to be in the FCC. He knows the machinations of the big companies and at the same time is an Internet liberal who can keep broadband providers and their anti-consumer tricks under check."

Needless to say I'm flattered although neither a likely choice (that's an understatement) nor a candidate. However, Om is dead on about the importance of this appointment. Decisions made by the five member FCC commission have had and will have an enormous effect not only on the tech sector but on the entire US and even the global economy.

Under Chairman Reed Hundt the FCC maintained a policy of benign neutrality and non-regulation towards the infant consumer Internet. They resisted congressional pressure to allow local telcos to throttle dialup Internet access with excessive fees. The access business grew and flourished and the WorldWideWeb and email changed all of our lives — usually for the better. US businesses had a headstart in this environment and benefitted from the growth of the Internet worldwide; for years almost all international Internet traffic was routed thorough the US.

Under Chairman Bill Kennard, the FCC encouraged the growth of VoIP and again had to resist congressional attempts, especially from Senator Stevens, to protect the profits of the telcos. I had a good view and some input into this discussion as chair of the policy committee of the VON (Voice on the Net) coalition. The FCC's good example was followed worldwide, especially in developing countries. The price of most international calls has gone down more than 90% as a result. China and India probably benefited the most from affordable communication but America's leadership aided by the FCC created an opportunity for American companies including ITXC which Mary and I founded.

Chairman Michael Powell pushed hard for the principles of net neutrality. However, Powell had a hard time getting a majority of his fellow commissioners to go along with most of his initiatives. The commission at full strength consists of three members of the party which controls the White House and two from the other party. Although they are presidential appointees, they do NOT serve at the pleasure of the President and tend to be quite independent.

The current Chair Kevin Martin has been relatively unapproachable from a high tech point of view. Under him the commission has approved mega-mergers in telecom without (IMHO) adequate safeguards against monopoly behavior. However, the decision last week to free up the TV white spaces for open unlicensed access is an enormous achievement which will prove of huge benefit to the US economy and all of us who use the Internet (more here).

The most important task immediate facing the next Chair will be to assure that telcos and the broadcasters do not manage to undo this decision in Congress or in the courts. Speedy procedures will need to be established for testing new radios and other devices invented to use these white spaces. More work is needed to safely increase the power limits allowed to devices in this part of the spectrum.

Om is right; this is a very, very important decision and a fulcrum for change we can believe in.

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