US FCC Chairman Powell seeks to overhaul agency

US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell made his formal congressional debut on Thursday, mapping out...

US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 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", 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 claimed a consistent approach, which he felt had long been lacking in the FCC's handling of issues, was "sorely needed". He thought, however, that developing a framework to deal with new-breed communications issues would be difficult.

"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 intends to lobby for more options in the FCC's enforcement arsenal. "Our enforcement tools are inadequate and our fines are trivial," he said.

Repeatedly, Powell declared he was no fan of "prophylactic" regulatory measures, favouring policing instead. "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Powell also advocated dropping existing FCC policies that had become outdated. Specifically, he intended to "validate the purpose of a rule in the modern context or eliminate it".

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

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

The new leader also highlighted the need for more technical personnel and pay scales that will allow the FCC to attract such talent.

Several members of the US 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 Republican Thomas Sawyer.

W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also expressed support for Powell's vision. Furthermore, Tauzin intends to introduce legislation that will put limits on the merger conditions the FCC can impose.

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