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Post-Election FCC Makeover Likely

No matter which candidate wins today's presidential election, you can expect changes to the makeup of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), many telecom experts say.

The next president will be responsible for nominating new commissioners to the FCC if, as anticipated, there is turnover there after the election. He also would appoint the next chairman of the independent commission.

Chairman Michael Powell has been seen as unhappy with the direction of the commission, and many expect that he will resign his position before the end of his term in 2007, even if President Bush is re-elected. Two other commission positions are set to open up early next year as well (see Powell: VOIP Regs 'Grave Mistake').

The five-member commission currently has a majority of Republican-leaning members ( Powell, Kathleen Abernathy, and Kevin Martin), but the Democratic minority (Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein) has won support from Martin on some key votes over the past year, leading some to speculate that Powell has lost his influence over the commission. In general, it's been bitterly divided and has made some controversial moves. (See Calls for FCC Relief Get Louder, FCC: Back to the Drawing Board, and FCC Suggestion Spurs (More) Conflict.)

At the same time that the FCC is divided and lacking a clear direction, it's weighing important issues such as UNE-P pricing, VOIP regulation, and FTTP. (See VOIP Fans Raise Regulatory Issues, VOIP Carriers Calculate Tap Tariff, Verizon FTTP: Plenty of Exits, Qwest & CLECs Negotiate UNE-P, FCC Hails Covad, Qwest Deal, and VOIP Seeks Its FCC Level.)

Industry watchers have predicted that a Republican-led commission under a second Bush administration could be expected to continue advocating deregulation of century-old networks, while a John Kerry presidency would support more regulations than the current administration. Both candidates have advocated promoting high-speed Internet access, but telecom reform has not been a centerpiece of either of their platforms.

The Bush administration largely has avoided telecommunications battles over the last four years, leaving Congress, the courts, and the FCC to oversee the complex policies.

Ray Gifford, president of the Washington-based Progress and Freedom Foundation says that if Kerry wins the election, he expects commissioner Michael Copps to be named interim FCC chairman: "Copps would probably serve as interim chairman as it would be difficult for them [Democrats] to get another appointment through right away. Even if Powell leaves, it will depend on the makeup of Congress to determine who the next chairman and commissioners will be."

Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, believes it would be a mistake if Copps were to become the interim chairman. “It would be disastrous,” she says. “He’s the Grim Reaper of telecom policy because he is so pro-regulation.”

Gifford feels a change of administration would alter the FCC from having a slightly deregulation mindset to a more regulated mindset. "The place where you would probably see this most is on the issue of media ownership,” he says. “Kerry is definitely more supportive of strict ownership rules."

Both Arrison and Gifford expect the FCC to play a major role in the telecom industry over the next four years.

“A lot of people are pushing for the Telecom Act [of 1996] to be rewritten and for issues like VOIP to be settled,” Arrison says. “There could be a lot of changes depending on the makeup of the FCC board. And while neither candidate has shown much interest in the telecom space in the past, I think they will need to be very involved over the next presidential term as there are many issues to be decided.”

One name that has surfaced as a potential candidate to replace Powell, should Kerry win the White House, is Gregg Rothschild, minority counsel to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a former legislative director for Kerry.

There are a number of names being bandied about as possible nominees should Bush win a second term, including Becky Klein, former Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, and FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin, who worked on the first Bush campaign.

— Chris Somerville, special to Light Reading


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