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Powell’s bowels

If new FCC chairman Michael Powell’s comments indicate the direction of his agency, our telecom future smells of monopoly and a widening digital divide.

I expected the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take a less regulatory tack under archconservative Chairman Michael Powell than it did under Clinton Democrat William Kennard. But after Powell’s comments to the media on Tuesday–his first public comments since being named FCC chairman–it’s much worse than I thought.

A news story on our site yesterday touched on some of the comments. But a long story in yesterday’s New York Times “Business Day” section went into much greater detail and included pointed criticism by concerned groups. His comments about deregulating telecom (quoted in our story yesterday) didn’t surprise me much. We expect him to favor Baby Bells and offer no more free rides to competitive local exchange carriers. But two comments in the Times story raised the hair on my neck.

The first relates to the digital divide. He expressed skepticism about the very notion of a digital divide because the term could be used to justify entitlement programs–giving less fortunate people cheaper access to computers and Internet access. “I think there is a Mercedes divide,” he said. “I’d like to have one, I can’t afford one.” I’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger buffalo chip hurled at the working poor by any public servant. Poor people are not asking for Mercedes; all they want is public transportation to get them to work. Similarly, they’re not asking for dual-processor G4s, all they want is a $500 PC and 56K Internet so that they can bootstrap their skills into the digital age.

The second relates to the notion of “public interest,” which has always been used as a guide to the FCC’s merger and license transfer considerations. If a merger is in the public interest, it is approved. To the extent that it is not, it is modified. For example, AT&T’s merger with Media One had a condition that AT&T divest itself of Time Warner cable because it is not in the public interest for one company to own more than 30 percent of the cable landscape. Powell said he had no way to define public interest, adding that he would let the market decide what’s in the public interest. In other words, consumers are not a factor in public interest, only business is.

Both comment don’t just strike at the roof of past FCC policies, they undercut its very foundations. One thing can be said about Powell’s style: it resembles that of his father, Secretary of State Colin Powell. As I read the comments, I thought back to the elder Powell’s historic news conference when he was secretary of defense and the United States had just attacked Iraq. He said of the Iraqi army, “Our strategy is simple. We’ll cut it off and we’ll kill it.” Hopefully the younger Powell’s policies don’t cut off those less fortunate than him from the digital revolution or kill telecom and cable competition.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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