The First Name in Cable

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell is now ready, willing and able to tell the industry’s story in Washington
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National Cable & Telecommunications Association president and CEO Michael Powell seems comfortable in his own, always-nattily-clad skin, and with his new mission of making the case for cable in Washington.

In his comfortable office a polished cufflink's throw from the Capitol, Powell is surrounded by some telltale accessories. A framed picture of his father, retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, faces him from across the room; a mug from alma mater The College of William & Mary is close at hand; and on the wall is a painting of the famed African-American Civil War cavalry regiment, the "Buffalo Soldiers" - Powell was in the armored cavalry. Together, they represent the key forces that have shaped him, he acknowledged: Family, education, and military/public service.


Powell relaxes in a chair as he prepares to field questions, but his eyes rarely leave the questioner as he speaks at length about his approach to industry advocacy and the issues that face the cable industry. The ex-military man comes across in his talk of the information empire and of a code of honor that he vows political expediency will never trump. He would rather quit any job than compromise his principles, he said - something he expects from those who work for him as well.

It was 10 years ago at McCormick Place in Chicago that then-Federal Communications Commission chairman Powell literally rolled into his first NCTA convention - the former gymnast did a forward roll following an opening act of local kids doing gymnastics. He would not say how he could top that entrance at this week's Cable Show, as he returns to the same venue to deliver his first keynote atop the association.

In his first sit-down interview as head of the NCTA, Powell talked with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about his priorities for the association, the key issues on his plate, and much more. Powell said he will continue the NCTA's tradition of avoiding calls for regulating the competition, and that he will go for impact in his dealings with policymakers rather than wearing a path to their doors. "[W]hen I come to see them, I am coming because it matters, I am coming because this is serious, I am coming because this really has an impact that we do not think advances our interest or the public interest," he said.

Powell is fine with this magazine making the point that he is the first African-American to lead the association, and said he's proud of the industry for "crossing that bridge" when he came to it. But he suggests he will put the exclamation point on that choice with the unique skills and experiences he brings to the post.

But don't talk to him about legacy. He said that the first thing he told his staff at the FCC was that bringing up the "L" word - legacy - was the surest way to get them in trouble: "We are going to do our jobs as best we see it, and only history is allowed to judge whether you have a legacy or not."

You literally rolled into your first NCTA convention. How do you top that entrance this time around?

You didn't know about that in advance. You're not going to know about this one in advance. We'll have to wait and see. Nothing is getting revealed.

Why did you want this job?

The better question is, ‘why not?' When you look around and say to yourself, ‘What is going on in the world that is fascinating and interesting?' I came to realize this at the FCC, and continue to be passionate about it, that the world is going through a great, epic change and the information age is a real and exciting transformation.

I think it is a critical one for our country and certainly a critical one for my children.

When I look at this industry, I see an industry that is at the cutting edge of those questions, broadband, media, information systems. I think they have cutting-edge assets that are not only great from a commercial perspective, but are critical to the country's hopes and ambitions.

There is a public-servant part of me that not only enjoys the issues and their significance, but believes that we are all engaged in some of the most important work for the country's future.

I also think this is one of the handful of industries that has an extraordinarily proud heritage.

If you look around the horn at the leaders of this industry, you will find a lot of people who have been in this business most of their adult lives or have fathers or mothers who were part of this business before them.

They have lived through cable's birth, its growth and its evolution. There is a very proud history and heritage there. I think that cultures that have a good sense of where they come from are really well-positioned to think positively about where they are going, so long as they don't let their past be a limitation on their vision of the future.

I like the sense of tradition that lives around this industry and their product.

What do you mean by the ‘epic change' going on?

The issues are really challenging and I am a person who is attracted by these great intellectual challenges, both from a business and governmental-policy standpoint.

We really are wrestling with what will be the ground rules for the information space. The issues are tricky, they're multidimensional and more difficult because of the ambiguity associated with the future. Everything seems both possible and threatening all at the same time.

For me, that is an attractive set of challenges to be a part of. And finally, at the end of the day, it's who you get to work with. The men and women who staff this agency have an impeccable reputation for quality and hard work. I saw it when I was in the government and was on the receiving end of their work product. They enjoyed that reputation around the city.

And I think this is an industry committed to being solution-oriented and pragmatic and not shrill. It does not see the government as a tool for leveraging their business interests, but believes they are committed as a private-sector community to try to do what they need to do to succeed.

You had a regulatory philosophy at the FCC. Do you bring a lobbying/advocacy philosophy to the job?

I'm not sure it is a philosophy, but I guess part of it is. I am a big believer that everyone has a story and it begins with telling your story and telling it well. I believe this is an industry that is focused on the future and needs to be. It needs to be challenged internally to be forever focused on that future, and to be focused on it in a way that my 16-year-old is that sees the world as increasingly personalized and interactive, with enormous new communications capabilities anytime, anywhere.

So, what I have said to staff here and to our leaders is that needs to be first and foremost in how we tell our story - why are we important to the future and how we are focused in our vision on the future.

It may sound corny, but I also think that we are patriotic. What I mean by that is, if the U.S.'s prosperity and place as a great empire in the information age is not currently assured, and I would say that it isn't, and you hope to have the same enormous productivity and prosperity that generations of the industrial age enjoyed, then we are partners in that vision. We are partners with the government and we are partners with all other parts of that ecosystem who want to see a prosperous America that promises that same 16-year-old of mine an American dream in the digital age.

Something else I have thought a lot about was that one of the things when I got here surprised even me was the enormous breadth and depth of our philanthropic activities. I don't think half the public-policy world knows or fully appreciates the amount of money, time, sweat and treasure the people in this industry spend on important causes. I am proud when I look around that it's an industry that has a stepped-up commitment to diversity, both on an ethnic and gender basis.

On the diversity issue, should we be making the point that you are the first African American to head NCTA, or are we beyond that?

You can choose to make the point or not. I can only tell you that I am proud of this job, period, but I am also proud if that is a bridge that we've crossed, that I am proud that the industry chose to cross it.

Look, it is the continuation of a story in which more of my fellow citizens in that community get these opportunities and should be considered for these opportunities. The way I think about it is, sure, I am proud of that and would not hesitate to have it mentioned when people talk about me.

But at the end of the day also I think I am here because I have some experiences that are important to everyone in the industry, no matter what their stripe.

Is there an issue with trying to tell that story for such a diverse group of members including operators, and programmers and combined cable and broadcast interests?

It is challenging, but it is doable. For all the tensions that people make much of, there are many more instances in which the enormous virtuous relationship between these diverse interests is much greater and more important in totality than any of the incremental skirmishes that you might note or hear about.

If that is true, then there is a coherent story. Just like I don't believe there is any value to the people who manufacture DVD players if there are no quality DVDs to watch, and there is no value to the quality of your DVD if you don't have the machinery that will allow you to play your next creative iteration. All good stories should be simple, not because they are dumb but because they have clarified a complex environment. That is the kind of story we are trying to tell and are capable of telling.

What are the key FCC issues for cable?

A lot of the issues that are giving energy to policy questions are in part emanating out of the additional new interactions with Web companies.

It's about piracy, privacy, cybersecurity, and data security. A lot of these are at the intersection of network industries, content and the Web. There are three critical legs of this stool that are constantly interacting and creating issues.

Anything the chairman does that stems out of the vision of the National Broadband Plan and the importance of more broadband to more people more often is important to us. Second, when I was chairman of the FCC, I know how distorted the wrong  Universal Service policies can be.

To the extent the FCC is focused on constructive reform, we will share that focus.  The commission has very high interest in spectrum. That may not be our main core issue as much as it might be the wireless association. But we have even more companies that are very focused on mobility as a critical next step in their business visions, and the key to that mobility is some form of wireless mobility, whether it be unlicensed Wi-Fi, or licensed spectrum, or other types of home networks.

For the second time, the FCC concluded in its 706 report [on the availability of high-speed and broadband Internet service] that broadband was not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion. Are you concerned that will give the FCC a blank check to enact new regulations?

I would hope not, but the mechanics of the statute are such that when you conclude that deployment is not reasonable and timely, you avail yourself of potentially a new basis of regulatory authority. I'm not anti-regulation or pro-regulation. I am for good or limited regulation if it has a compelling and demonstrable purpose.

So, what is the state of broadband deployment?

I think we should stop beating ourselves up as a country. We should be more proud of what we are doing as a country than not. It is all well and good to have these comparisons to other parts of the world, but we live here in America and our story is not so bad, even though there is more that we can do. And I am always suspect of the impulse that there is a regulatory solution to driving more private investment. It has been a rare instance when I have found that that impulse is correct.

The NCTA has not weighed in on retransmission consent, which is obviously a big issue for the cable industry, and could implicate over-the-top video as well. Why not?

It goes without saying that retrans is an extremely important issue to all of our companies. The operators are certainly heavily focused on it and have had any number of concerns, some of whom are on the record with the full extent of issues they are concerned about.

Similarly, our programmer companies, this is a source of their revenue so it is important to them as well. Clearly, this can be an enormous business tension between the two [parties]: one who has the desire to limit their expense and the other the desire to maximize their revenue.

I do think that what they mutually share is there should be a good or efficient way by which those business questions are resolved.

But, look, that is an issue [where] we have made a very conscious decision as an association, given the breadth and diversity of our association, to have only the most limited role in the actual regulatory proceeding.

Do you also hold with former NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow and the NCTA's longstanding philosophy of not asking for too much regulatory intervention in your favor because that sword cuts both ways?

I feel really strongly about that, and it goes far beyond me or Kyle. I remember hearing Decker Anstrom [McSlarrow's predecessor] at a meeting when I was a commissioner and participant when he said that he believed his was an industry that had been given the tools for its own success or failure and should live or die by virtue of [its] own strategy and execution. I would be extremely hesitant to see the regulatory process as a tool for propagating competitive advantage, or worse, just for the purpose of punishing, or restricting or limiting a competitor for no other reason. I am afraid not all industries see it that way.

When I was chair of the FCC, I was able to witness this from the front row. A lot of what people do is to come in and ask, essentially, for business advantages dressed up as a regulatory or public-policy issue, but often the public policy when measured by the way they articulated it was anything that was synonymous with their corporate interests to the detriment to their competitors.

We as an industry are relatively proud that we try very hard to not use the regulatory process in that way. I believe that is the right approach. I would rather have the credibility with regulators and congresspeople when I come to see them.

What matters on the Hill at the moment?

I would really have to say that what really matters on the Hill is budget and deficit politics. It is an enormous overhang on the nation's well-being and I think that it is important to have our own degree of humility against the enormous gravitation pull of that one issue.

[At NCTA] right now we are managing an association that is on about 10 fronts, with activity all over the Congress.

For example?

Privacy is an issue that is going to pop up every day for the rest of my life because now that we as a society have moved our world online, we are going to have a steady drum beat of issues associated with data breach or people's personal information finding its way to somewhere we prefer it not. The Congress is understandably going to be focused on that. And we as an industry, who have always cared about privacy because we have an intimate relationship with our consumer, are going to be engaged in that process as well.

A related issue is cybersecurity. I can't underestimate that this is the great Achilles' heel to the great vision of the Internet.  If we are not effective in deterring or preventing unauthorized intrusions into our network, the dream will fizzle. We are very focused on that issue.

The Commerce Department and the Federal Trade Commission have talked a lot about letting the industry self-regulate in this area. What should the cable industry be doing in terms of self-regulation?

We're not self-regulated. The cable industry is quite meaningfully regulated under the Telecommunications Act under the area of privacy. We shouldn't confuse the way Google or Facebook or Web companies are regulated around privacy and the way traditional telecommunications companies have a regulatory relationship with the Telecom Act. We have significant privacy obligations.

One thing we are very worried about is having to live under both the Telecommunications Act world of privacy and a whole new regime that was really designed around Web companies that arguably we are swept into as well.  And then we are living with dual sets of regulatory obligations that are, oh by the way, not necessarily fairly harmonized.

Contrary to what some would want to say, our companies are not just railroad tracks. They are innovators of content and services. They also have Web offerings and they also very meaningfully interact with the Web and we have TV content that is coming that also interacts and engages the consumer in a dialogue about data related to that consumer's preferences.

The network neutrality debate never seems to go away. What is the answer?

Don't I wish I knew. I am actually proud of the industry. I was not here for the position it ultimately took, but I think that was a perfect example of everything I said already.

The fundamental issue is actually bigger than net neutrality. It is really about jurisdiction and power. One issue that is presented for everybody is: What is the range of the FCC's jurisdictional power when it comes to broadband? We are content with what the commission did, but I am just as interested what the judiciary thinks about the range of power.

What are the core principles that you don't compromise regardless of the political expedience?

Normally, I say I don't tell people my personal ones. But I was taught by some great parents that I don't compromise anything in the category of personal or professional integrity or ethics. I won't tolerate it in myself or in any organization that I am associated with. And that means acting consistently with your principles and it means acting no different in your personal and professional life, and ensuring that your organization fights with ideas and not emotions. I don't see any value ever in name-calling, or personal attacks or character attacks.

I have been attacked that way in public policy, but you would be hard-pressed to find any article in which I responded in any similar way. So, I don't compromise that for anything. I would quit any job before I would be engaged in a fight like that.

Since you brought up lobbying, you once called lobbyists ‘self-interested, money-chasing actors.' Do you still believe that?

I would say it slightly differently. What I mean by that is that a lot of times in public policy we act surprised about the way different players behave or act, and I think it is less surprising than it seems. And, by the way, I would ascribe the same things to regulators or public interest groups. Everybody is motivated by a set of predictable interests and attempts to maximize those interests and I think that is a healthy and fair thing to do.

Every shareholder of Comcast expects Comcast to act in the interest of their shareholders. They are not supposed to compromise that significantly for them. And so, to be asking companies to be doing something that is diametrically opposed to the interests that they represent, it's tough.

Don't be surprised that they take positions that they take because they are predictable. But if you want a solution, you have to make room in the solution for the genuine interests that motivate everyone who is in it, whether it is the government, or a public interest group, or corporation.

What do you hope your legacy will be?

If you remember from my days at the FCC, one of my principal rules is that I don't have conversations about my legacy until I'm finished.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton

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