FCC chairman speaks out at wireless show

On stage at the Cellular Technology and Internet Association wireless show, CTIA President Thomas Wheeler presented Michael Powell, newly-installed chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, as a logical and brilliant choice to head up the agency.

However, perhaps it was the whispered introduction of an attendee sitting in the audience of some 2,000 industry executives that gave the more accurate description, calling Powell, "possibly the most powerful man in the United States next to Alan Greenspan."

Powell, it is generally agreed, controls the future of wireless policy in the U.S. In a conversation with Wheeler he touched on the major issues concerning the telecommunications industry and its infrastructure and service providers, including spectrum caps, privacy, fostering innovation and speeding up the regulatory review process.

Wheeler's first question asked the chairman if the role of the FCC changes with the marketplace. The run up to the question talked of delays and a general lack of rapid response on the part of the FCC to major wireless issues which tended to kill off the potential to rapidly monetize innovative wireless services.

Powell's response was rapid, and a bit surprising to many in the audience.

"A decision that is late is worse than an early decision that is wrong," said Powell. He went on to say that the FCC is re-thinking its business model, as any other business would do from time to time.

"We are in the process of reviewing the optimal organization and structure for the FCC and be responsive in Internet time," Powell said.

However, the FCC chairman saved an even bigger surprise for a follow-up comment that seemed to take Wheeler by surprise. About the FCC's efforts to speed up decision making, Powell made the following claim:

"We are putting increasing emphasis on (an) enforcement model as opposed to (a) regulatory model."

He added the warning, "When you cheat, we'll get you at the back end."

Wheeler asked about the lack of spectrum availability in the U.S. and the so-called "spectrum cap," an FCC regulation that prohibits any single entity from owning more than 45 Mhz of spectrum in any one geographic area, or 55 Mhz in rural areas.

Powell noted that spectrum is spread across a lot of agencies, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense, and that therefore the Administration needs to take a central role in planning.

If budget policy and maximizing profits are the central goals of spectrum allocation, this will undermine the use of spectrum, Powell said.

He also said the FCC will reevaluate the spectrum cap.

In fact, the FCC is taking comments until April 21 on the cap.

In referring to the valuable part of the wireless spectrum now controlled by the Defense Department, Powell obliquely made reference to his father, Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"But you can't trivialize the uses of wireless and the need for defense. As the son of a four-star, I respect those decisions of national interest," Powell said.

Wheeler asked next if the U.S. might not fall behind Europe in building "the next generation infrastructure for the wireless Internet."

"Going first is not always going to cause you to be the winner," said Powell. "You bet too fast, too soon, too early, and you end up embedding inferior technology."

A government policy on high definition television in Europe, noted Powell, "left them with an inferior technology."

The final issue discussed was privacy, and Powell appeared to be acutely aware of the inherent tensions between privacy and personalized services.

"Internet-based services allow for intimate tailoring, personalized everything. The "my generation" I call it, "my yahoo," etc. But the tailoring requires greater revelation," said Powell.

Powell said it will finally be up to the consumer to decide how much information they want to give away in return for personalized services. The government's job is to make sure the producers of services provide fair notice to consumers.

"The day somebody is arrested and there is a whole log on everything they did is when we will see this come to the fore," said Powell.

He summed up the issue of privacy succinctly

"The killer app of the Internet is personalization at some level, and personalization is the (diminution) of privacy," said Powell.

This story, "FCC chairman speaks out at wireless show" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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