Editorial: Under New Management

New NCTA head Michael Powell begins his tenure

Michael Powell began his tenure atop the National Cable & Telecommunications
Association last week with group and individual
staff meetings and the usual settling-in process. It was a decidedly
more sedate arrival than his first appearance as FCC chairman,
before NCTA’s annual conference in 2001.

In that, Powell had to follow a group of gymnasts
and, being a former gymnast himself, he literally
forward-rolled his way onto the stage. He will now
have something of a balancing act to accomplish as
he weighs the oft-competing interests of an increasingly
diverse group. There is Comcast, of course,
the association’s biggest member, which is solidly on
both sides of the retransmission consent issue with
systems and stations, and there are programmers as
well as operators in the association—Discovery and
Cablevision, to take a notable example—who are
at odds over whether “watching a cooking show in
the kitchen on the iPad” constitutes TV Everywhere.

One advantage Powell has over his predecessor,
Kyle McSlarrow, is that he does not face an
FCC chairman hammering away at cable rates and
its business models at every opportunity. While
McSlarrow faced the irony of a Republican chairman
looking to insert the FCC into the à la carte
and rate-regulation business directly, Powell has
Democratic Chairman Julius Genachowski, who
is focused like a laser on broadband, though that
can be a double-edged sword for cable operators.
On the one hand, speeding broadband build-outs
has meant trying to ease rights-of-way and pole
attachments. And Genachowski’s willingness to
compromise rather than hold a hard line produced
a “better than the alternative” network neutrality
rule change that NCTA has said it could live with.

The other hand could be a fist: the threat that
the FCC will do whatever it takes to get broadband
to the masses. Witness the commission’s last
broadband deployment report, which for the first
time found that the technology was not being deployed
in a reasonable and timely fashion. If that
means buttressing National Broadband Plan moves
to revamp the Universal Service Fund, or removing
barriers to infrastructure investment, OK. But if it
becomes a blank check for the government to redefi
ne broadband access according to its own views of
speeds and prices, it could become quite a problem.

The issue of online privacy and targeted advertising
will likely be a hot-button issue, with “do
not track” legislation being teed up and both the
Federal Trade Commission and Commerce Department
signaling that online marketers and/or
search engines and/or applications providers and/
or networks must provide consumers with more
control over their information online…or else.
The “or else” being tougher regs. And even selfregulatory
efforts will likely have FTC oversight.

But with a lull in the network neutrality debate,
and with cable operators diversifying into bundles
that will soon take two hands to count—traditional
video, voice, broadband data, VoIP, cellular,
and online video—Powell joins an industry that is
in prime position to capitalize on the broadband
boom, so long as the government does not make
subsidized overbuilding a cottage industry.

Powell also has the advantage of inheriting
from McSlarrow one of the best-run associations
around, according to Blair Levin, former chief of
staff to Democratic Chairman Reed Hundt. He
has “a lot of good will on both sides of the aisle,
and I think there is a lot of respect for what he
did at the commission,” says Levin. “Michael is a
very smart guy and has a great sense of people.
He’ll do great.”

We also think Powell, who has been a consistent
advocate for the marketplace as the driver
of industry business models, is a good fit, and
would do well to follow McSlarrow’s lead of resisting—
as much as is practicable—the temptation
to call for regulation of your competitors
since that is another sword that cuts both ways.

Welcome aboard.