At his 90th and last meeting of the Federal Communications Commission last Thursday, outgoing Chairman Michael Powell confessed openly to...
At his 90th and last meeting of the Federal Communications Commission last Thursday, outgoing Chairman Michael Powell confessed openly to the public destruction his personal addiction had wrought. With some shame, he acknowledged that as a high-tech gadget junkie, “I have twice blown up the neighborhood electricity system.”
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The four other members nodded, and quickly voted unanimously for new safety measures to protect the many telecommunications pipes now entering America’s homes.
With that, Powell said goodbye, teared up and gave bear hugs to each of his colleagues — even the three who have been backbiting him since 2003.
There are many people who will be thrilled to see Powell step down from the FCC this week. Among them is Kevin Martin, the FCC commissioner who wants Powell’s job. There’s also Jeff Zucker, the head of NBC-TV entertainment, and shock jock Howard Stern, both of whom excoriated Powell’s dalliances with broadcast decency standards.
Powell won’t be missed by Big Media moguls who thought he did not do enough to allow their megamergers. Nor will there be sobs from some smaller newspaper chain owners who complained Powell allowed too much consolidation of Big Media radio, TV and cable corporations.
Term: Became FCC commissioner in 1997; named chairman in 2001 by President Bush
Previous experience: Antitrust attorney at Department of Justice; private-practice lawyer; clerked for a federal appellate judge in Washington, D.C.; Army officer
Education: Georgetown University Law Center, 1993; College of William and Mary, 1985
Family: Married with two children; father is former Secretary of State Colin Powell
But the high-tech community will likely hang flags at half-staff. Powell has been their patron and mascot rolled into one.
A few of Powell’s
TiVo: Loves it, but might be a close second to …
iPod: R&B, Motown.
BlackBerry: Which he says is cool, but he’s also trying out the …
Laptops: There are four at home, which connect via a …
Wi-Fi router: It’s downstairs.
Macs: He uses a G5.
Other gadgets include: The Xbox, which the kids play.
“Powell, more than his predecessors,” says Microsoft Chief Technical Officer Craig Mundie, “has been willing to listen to us [in the tech industry] and understand where convergence is taking all of us.”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Seattle Times, Powell acknowledges the best part of his job was dealing with this. “I tried to turn this into an agency that was more technology-savvy,” he says.
“I wanted us to be out front on issues about our telecommunications future. We gave the high-tech industry an open door to talk with us about their ideas, and if they hesitated, we went out and found them.”
From the industry perspective, as FCC chairman, Powell was crucial in supporting developments, not stifling them.
“You’ve heard of venture-capital firms?” he says. “Well, we’re a venture-policy firm.”
If Powell is leaving a mixed legacy, the tech focus of his watch is highly intentional. To learn firsthand, for instance, Powell visited places where techies would let this gadget nut play with their toys.
“What could be cooler than spending hours with the Google founders?” he says.
Reading company FCC filings inside the Beltway wasn’t enough. He went to the Corning plant to watch workers pull fiber for cables.
“People say, ‘You’re so excited about all this,’ ” he says. “Well, I don’t think I would be if I had done it the Washington way.” His visits included Boeing’s Connexion offices in Virginia for a demonstration of high-speed Internet access for airplane passengers; tribal reservations that are attempting to get Wi-Fi; and, of course, one of his favorites, Microsoft’s labs.
“That’s what I’ll miss,” says Powell. “I want to be able to call Bill Gates up and ask him to show me the next big thing.”
At the FCC, he invited “distinguished speakers,” including Mundie, Cisco Systems’ John Chambers and eBay’s Meg Whitman, to brief the agency, and he invited lower-level staffers, with no media allowed, to hear about interactive technologies. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, attended one session to learn about digital TV.
Powell’s interest in all things techie made him the poster child for gadgets. “I love my TiVo,” he says of the machine that lets TV viewers program their favorite shows without resorting to VCRs. “I turn on my TiVo and watch what I want, when I want it. It’s intelligence at the periphery.”
Recently, he’s found a new heartthrob, the Apple iPod. He uses it at his FCC office overlooking a bend in the Potomac and feeds on R&B and Motown while reviewing hundred-page filings on wireless-spectrum parameters.
Though he’s become friends with Mundie and speaks with him regularly, Powell admits to “sleeping with the enemy”: His home computer is a Mac G5.
Then there’s his Blackberry 7100, which is more like a cellphone; and he’s been trying out the Treo 650, which he calls “cool.” His house has a Wi-Fi router downstairs so that all four family laptops connect without wires. There’s a Sony high-definition TV in his office, but “it’s still too expensive for me to own at home.”
But he does have an Xbox, which his children use. Powell’s children, in fact, have had a huge impact on how he approached his chairmanship at the FCC.
“What’s really fascinating to me is watching my kids play the Xbox or Halo, with a hundred other kids around the world online with them, using wireless and with voice. I mean, I played war games, too,” says the former Army captain. “Not like this.”
This kind of technological vision is what “drove the engine” at the FCC, he says. “This stuff isn’t just for us,” Powell says. “Our job is to make the way for the first generation of digital children.”
Powell came to the FCC in 1997, a GOP appointee with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as his sponsor; Gen. Colin Powell as his father; a reputation as a brilliant antitrust lawyer at the Justice Department; a bipartisan group of D.C. cheerleaders; staff whose loyalty and love for him bordered on adoration; and a tattered copy of “The Armed Forces Officer,” a military manual that had served him well as a young Army officer.
In the manual, Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. Above all, try something.” It’s a line Powell cites frequently and is probably the reason he is leaving the FCC with business that remains unfinished and some labels he believes are misplaced.
For example, his main “regret” is the media-ownership debacle into which he plunged headlong. In 2003, Powell pushed the FCC into a 3-2 vote to change the existing media-ownership rules to allow more concentration in TV, cable and cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in a single market.
One of the most vocal opponents was Frank Blethen, chief executive of The Seattle Times Co., who testified in Congress against the FCC’s plans.
As the date of the vote neared, hundreds of thousands of Americans, propelled by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, weighed in with Congress against Powell’s determination to move forward.
After the vote, Congress rebelled against Powell, and public-interest groups took the FCC to court. Powell lost the case, eventually deciding not to appeal to the Supreme Court. It was one of his only losses, and the worst.
“We could have done it differently,” he says.
He had been urged to go slowly and to separately review the rules expanding network-ownership caps and those prohibiting local TV stations’ cross-ownership with newspapers.
“But I wanted to look at the rules comprehensively, holistically,” he says. Furthermore, he notes that a year earlier Congress had basically ordered him to lift those rules.
But it all became a “firestorm,” he says. “It turned into a holy war.”
One issue he did not jump at, but was forced into, has caused him to be marked as a nitpicking censor: indecency on the air.
When Powell was still a commissioner in 2000, he said he was determined never to get into content control or censorship. The First Amendment was “first” for a reason, he said. But since the notorious Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 during which Janet Jackson exposed her right breast with Justin Timberlake’s help, Powell has been “stuck” with a series of complaints by radio listeners and TV viewers.
“I would have been very, very happy for Janet and Justin to stay in their clothes,” he says. “I don’t feel comfortable imposing my values on other people’s.”
Since then, the FCC has had to investigate complaints that Greek Olympic hosts displayed nude bodies dressed as ancient statues during NBC’s Olympic opening shows (still under review); complaints about graphic sexual discussions on afternoon drive-time radio (upheld); complaints against Howard Stern (upheld for a total fine of $495,000); and the Janet Jackson incident, which ultimately cost CBS $500,000.
But one complaint Powell is proud he denied involved the rough language in the uncut version of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” broadcast on Veterans Day. Powell called the movie “a critically acclaimed artwork that tells a gritty story,” despite the frequency of expletives in scenes of the Normandy invasion.
Recently, he was pulled into a congressional fray again when he said that cable TV and satellite radio should be immune from smut regulations. The indecency issue is not what Powell wants to be remembered for, but he can’t escape it.
On his way out the door, Powell got one more chance to fight for technology innovation. A month ago, Vonage and another Internet-phone-service provider complained to the FCC that a North Carolina phone company was blocking their technology, called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
After one of the fastest reviews in its history, the FCC made Madison River Communications agree to stop blocking the competing phone services and pay a $15,000 fine. Technology companies have hailed the decision.
Meanwhile, Powell is pondering what to do next. “I’ll miss the people I worked with most,” he says.
“I wanted to make this agency the place that would encourage the newer technology industry creators to just do their jobs, not stifle them,” he says. “I’ve had a front seat at the revolution and a backstage pass.”
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org