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.