Palace Revolt at the FCC


When he finally got fed up with our incessant yammering and badgering, he would grab us both by the hair, steal that great line from Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (“A plague on both your houses!”) and crack our heads together. It was an unholy dull sound much like ripe melons colliding. We would sink mutely to the ground, hardly firing on all eight cylinders with our heads throbbing.

Sibling rivalry gives way to all sorts of unintended consequences. Our mother gave my sister and me a parakeet. We were supposed to take turns feeding it. One day, we disagreed about whose turn it was. Each morning (unknown to our mother), we argued the point sotto voce. Neither of us yielded.

One day, we came home from school, our mother rushed out of the house to meet us, took us into her den, held us close and told her two cherubic murderers that the bird had died. We were stunned. The obvious consequences of our feud had never occurred to us. That sort of knowledge comes with age (one would hope).

In a similar drama being played out over the last few months in the halls of the “Portal” – the nickname of the headquarters of the FCC – the rivalry of two youthful commissioner siblings is imperiling a different sort of bird: telecom competition in the United States. In the parlance of our brothers in the hood, this ain’t no parakeet. Too bad my dad isn’t alive to go down there and crack some heads.

In a surprise move, the FCC posted this announcement on its Web site last Tuesday night:

Federal Communications Commission Reschedules February 13 Agenda Meeting
UNE Review Item to Be Considered at February 20, 2003 Meeting
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) … announced [on February 11, 2003) the postponement of the February 13 agenda meeting. The items previously scheduled for the February 13 meeting – including the commission’s review of [the] unbundled network elements (UNE) item – will be considered at the February 20 agenda meeting, which will take place in the commission meeting room at 9:30 a.m.

The UNE review item is a report and order concerning incumbent local-exchange carriers’ obligations to make elements of their networks available to new entrants on an unbundled basis. Last May, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the FCC’s current unbundling rules and has stayed their decision until February 20, 2003.

With this announcement, the FCC’s “sunshine” restrictions are lifted.

Just as World War I can be viewed as a family spat among royal cousins, this “Temporarily Closed Due to Sibling Rivalry” sign was posted in response to a palace revolt led by younger commissioner and “brother” Kevin J. Martin (a 36-year-old Republican, a former Bush campaign worker and husband of Catherine, who is the assistant to vice president Cheney) against elder “brother” Michael Powell (a 39-year-old Republican, son of Colin and Secretary of State to President George Bush).

Brother, can you spare a dime?

In his emblematic way, FCC Chairman Powell had previously added fuel to the public relations and stock market fire that he started with the February 13 postponement announcement. In preceding weeks, he stated that “chaos would ensue” as a result of such a delay.

Since being appointed chairman of the FCC by George Bush, Powell has traveled the continent speaking, speaking and speaking some more. Like all aspiring orators since the time of Cato (“Cartago delendum est” or “Carthage must be destroyed,” which Cato repeated like water on a rock for months on the floor of the Roman Senate), the man not only tells you but he tells you he told you.

In a whirlwind two-year tour, Powell has appeared on major magazine covers, has spoken innumerable times before Congressional committees and special interest groups and has been interviewed on countless television shows. In a peculiar and improbably guileless transubstantiation, he – not telecom – has become the story. Therefore, he too has become the lightening rod.

Detractors of Michael Powell have accused him of being born on third base while making the mistake of thinking he’d hit a triple. Even defenders admit that he seems to be searching for the mantle of gravitas.

Still, in direct proportion to the almost Biblical quantity and rate of the bons mots that spew from his mouth, that is precisely what seems to elude him. Like the cowboy who believes he cannot die so long as he has his boots on, Powell appears to believe he can cheat the grim reaper if only he keeps talking. It is well known that loose lips – even eloquent loose lips – are mightier than the sword.
Because he is so boyishly endearing, one wishes that he would simply shut up once in a while and just once that he would look at someone soberly and say: “That is a good question. I don’t have an answer.” As noted by the New Yorker, one also wishes that he would stop fiddling narcissistically with his coruscate cuff links and continually examining his French cuffs for the proper amount of reveal from the sleeve end of his expensive suits.

One wonders if he ever read the following passage in Sunday School, which is a passage obviously taken to heart by his decidedly ungaudy father.

If young Powell has ever seen “The Godfather,” he gives no sign of having ever heard the line “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” Far from seducing or suborning commissioner Martin (the time-honored way of gathering a constituency), Powell either started out or simply wound up abusing him.
From people who have been inside the FCC, I know that Powell had actually ostracized Martin within its halls and that staffers were explicitly told to keep the preliminary draft documents from him. Powell made him a virtual pariah. Why?

Although I feel a bit unclean addressing these personal issues and I wonder if I have stooped to the level of Melissa Rivers (perhaps a more pedestrian example of regression to the mean), my pop psychology analysis is that I think they are two peas in a pod who react helplessly to each other’s pheromones.

They are both out to make a name for themselves. They are users. Like many users, they don’t know it. In their childhoods, they did not fantasize about growing up to do great and heroic things. They yearned to be great and heroic men.

While Powell was out on the lecture circuit mystifying and dazzling people with apostle-like talk of the dense revolutionary economic theories of early 19th century economist Josef Schumpeter and torturing octogenarian Senator Fritz Hollings with 10-minute fanciful answers that required an Encyclop?dia Britannica and a dictionary to decipher (all while declaring how happy he was in his job), brother Martin was hardly sulking in his lonely pariah’s office.

Not to be outdone, Martin at first went on the same campaign trail – fighting fire with fire and waging a war of words. In the middle of December, he vaulted into the national limelight when he wowed a group of telecom attorneys with a speech applauding Verizon strategist Tom Tauke’s slogan “new wires, new rules” while publicly dissing his chairman.

Quickly, though, he realized that while glitzy battles could be won in the press, the real war would be won back at the Portal. He opted not for the route of a Pyrrhic victory. With the media ascendancy of Michael Powell, it had become easy to forget that there are three other commissioners at the FCC and they vote on these things. Shrewdly, Martin turned his attention to these wallflower commissioners.

The other three are grownups in both age and demeanor and do pretty much as expected. Republican Kathleen Abernathy is the only commissioner in the agency who has a defensible background in telecom (on both sides of the fence). It is hard to tell where Abernathy stands on issues.

I called her office two days ago, spoke with a member of her staff and learned that she has eschewed taking public stands on many of the lynchpin issues. It is equally hard to know how she interacts with Powell in private or what input she had supplied privately to the original draft. One can safely say only that she outwardly does what is expected of Republican commissioners: she backs the Republican chairman.

Democrats Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein stand together and for the most part act like Democrats. They are against messing around with the Telecom Act of 1996. They think the damned thing is just beginning to work and the frenzied outcries of the Bells act as proof.

They understand what even Homer Simpson could appreciate: the only way the Telecom Act of 1996 could work was by taking away local calling from the Bells as the Bells had taken from long-distance phone service. Doh.

In an administration in which it is a folly to be French, Muslim or Democrat and with only two of five votes, Messrs. Copps and Adelstein were not planning on having much sway.

Martin’s Coming Out

Perhaps two weeks ago brother Martin did the unthinkable: He crossed over. He went to Copps and Adelstein and offered them the following deal: I will let you keep voice competition open if you will let me monopolize broadband again. What Democrat could turn that opening down?
Apparently, they met and are carving out a compromise that will neuter Powell. The Democrats get to preserve legacy analog local calling competition. The Dems apparently don’t know that analog voice is the technology of the past.

The technology of the future is all broadband. On the broadband front, Martin will attempt to hoodwink the Democrats into restricting the bandwidth of the competitors to 1.5 megabits per second, which is not only one-tenth the speed that is now possible on copper and actually running on many networks but is also one-fortieth of what will be possible on copper later this year and one-three hundredth of what is coming down the road for copper in a year or two.

The irony of this is that the Bells will have to neck down the fiber side to keep the copper side of competitors from going as fast as it can go. Only in America could regulators propose to use fiber as a brake.

Later on Thursday, the FCC will have issued its report to the public. Though what it will contain is unknown and has been rumored to both extremes, almost assuredly what comes out of such a sordid and venal process will be fodder for future litigation. Both Powell and Martin are trying to stop water and time and neither will be stopped for long.

Further, the arc of young Powell’s power in the Cartesian coordinates of history has almost assuredly run through the inflection point twixt inclination and declination. Like Laci Peterson, his visage will recede and then be forgotten. But the damage he and his fellows might wreak on us will live for decades.