FCC Chairman Powell seeks to overhaul agency

By Jennifer Jones, InfoWorld |  Government

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell made his formal congressional debut on Thursday, mapping out his philosophy for overhauling the powerful regulatory agency.

Powell painted a picture of an FCC caught at an "extraordinary crossroads" and struggling to deal with New World technology issues within an antiquated agency.

"We are undertaking a comprehensive exercise to retool and refocus the FCC. To do that, I want to ensure that the commission has a clear policy vision to guide our deliberations with some predictability," Powell said.

Powell said that a consistent policy vision is "sorely needed" and reiterated his belief that consistency has long been lacking in the FCC's handling of issues.

But developing an overarching policy framework to deal with new breed communications issues will be difficult, Powell said.

"We are struggling with cost issues and trying to understand what products will be and what consumers will want and be willing to pay for in the future," said Powell. "I am humble enough to admit that we don't make the market in our own image."

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the communications industry, Powell said that he will lobby for more options in the FCC's enforcement arsenal. "Our enforcement tools are inadequate and our fines are trivial," he said.

Powell said over and over that he is no fan of "prophylactic" measures to regulate the industry. In many cases, Powell said he instead prefers enforcement. "Our response to consumer harms should be enforcement. It's better to give the benefit of the doubt, but when you cheat, we'll hurt you, and we'll hurt you bad," he said.

Powell also said he advocates combing though existing FCC policies and weeding out those that no longer apply. Powell said specifically that he intends to "validate the purpose of a rule in the modern context or eliminate it. It's as simple as that."

A particular problem current FCC leadership faces is the legacy of grouping companies according to the technology flavor used, rather than service provided.

FCC's "attempt to label" companies according to "what bucket you belong in" has become ineffective in the day of broadband access through a variety of means, Powell said. Going forward, Powell vowed "fairness to all, but allegiance to none."

The new FCC leader also said he will highlight the need for more technical personnel within the agency and pay scales that will allow the FCC to attract such talent.

Several members of Congress praised Powell's intentions. "If you carry out the goals with the clarity that you have explained them, then we are truly into a new era in terms of communications," said Rep. Thomas Sawyer (D-Ohio).

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