When William E. Kennard resigned as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Jan. 19, he left a legacy of accomplishment an educator could admire: During his tenure, schools and libraries have received more than $6 billion in eRate discounts.

Kennard’s departure—and the subsequent naming of his replacement, Michael K. Powell, by President Bush Jan. 22—raise questions about the future direction of telecommunications policy. Besides the eRate, other issues loom that could affect schools, including open access of high-speed cable pipelines and the rollout of digital broadcasting services.

Powell, 37, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently is a commissioner on the five-member panel. He filled a Republican slot in 1997, and his term expires in June 2002.

Because he is an acting commissioner, his designation as chairman does not require Senate confirmation.

“I am deeply honored and privileged to have received President Bush’s designation to be chairman of the Federal Communication Commission,” Powell said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the new administration, Congress, my fellow commissioners, and the very talented FCC staff on the important and challenging communications issues facing our nation.”

Powell is known for favoring deregulation and a hands-off approach. But he is not as conservative as his fellow Republican commissioner, Harold Furchtgott-Roth, and frequently has voted with the Democratic majority.

Powell on the eRate

It is Powell’s position on the eRate that has educators most concerned—though if Bush’s plan to transfer control of the program to the Education Department is successful, Powell’s stance on the eRate won’t matter.

On public record, Powell repeatedly has supported the goals of the eRate, but he also has expressed concern about the scope of the program because of the financial burden it places on telecommunication providers, which in turn affects consumers.

“I believe we must diligently police the growth of universal service programs, lest such growth imperil carriers’ efforts to bring the benefits of competition and innovation to consumers,” Powell wrote in a 1997 statement.

“In particular, we must limit carriers’ contributions to universal service to the amounts absolutely necessary to fulfill the universal service statutory mandate. If subsidy programs get out of hand, they can dramatically raise competitors’ costs and skew the economic incentives to enter markets.”

In 1998, when the eRate was still in its infancy, Powell sided with his Republican colleague in voting to suspend the collection of subsidies from telecommunications carriers until a full review of the program could be made. His vote followed weeks of increasingly strident attacks on the eRate, culminating in a letter from four powerful members of Congress calling on the FCC to postpone its funding of the program.

The following year, Powell voted against fully funding the eRate at its $2.25 billion cap, though he did say he supported a lesser amount.

“We are told that the demand for the program is extraordinarily high and we should continue to provide support to the neediest schools,” he wrote in his opinion. “But what information … do [we] have as regulators to distinguish between need and want in picking the ‘right’ amount? It is unremarkable that demand is high. Like in the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’ if you build it, they will come. And, as one would expect, we built a large federal program and they have come.”

Leslie Harris, a public policy consultant for both the Consortium for School Networking and the International Society for Technology in Education, noted that Powell often has voted for the eRate, “but he appeared ambivalent about it.” Since Powell hasn’t been a champion of the eRate, Harris added, the education community will have to start a dialogue with him to see where he stands on this issue.

“I think he cares about education, but [his ideas and] our ideas of the best way to get there may be different,” she said.

The American Association of School Administrators, for its part, is pleased with the selection of Powell, according to Kari Arfstrom, project director for the organization’s department of public affairs.

“We’ve worked with him for the past few years,” Arfstrom said. “We just think he is someone we can work with.”

Powell on other issues

In reviews of recent communications mergers, such as the marriage between America Online and Time Warner, Powell has taken a more limited approach to imposing requirements on the companies than his Democratic counterparts.

That kind of approach has earned him praise from House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., an outspoken critic of the agency under its Democratic leadership.

“For years, watching the FCC work has been like watching an old black-and-white movie. But now, with Michael Powell in charge, get ready for an FCC broadcast in HDTV,” Tauzin said in a statement. “He’s the one person best suited to bring the agency into the 21st century.”

Powell’s mostly hands-off approach has raised fears among public interest groups that he will shy away from addressing thorny new questions that arise in the context of merger reviews.

“For 70 years, the FCC has regarded mergers as an appropriate forum for considering new regulatory issues,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project.

Among the issues in question is “open access,” or forcing large media corporations to share their cable systems with smaller internet service providers (ISPs), thereby speeding deployment of high-speed internet access to remote communities.

In its majority opinion approving the merger, the FCC ruled that AOL Time Warner must open its cable systems to competitor ISPs, as urged in the Federal Trade Commission’s consent agreement. Powell issued a separate statement warning that the majority opinion “pile[s] on” to the FTC’s ruling.

Last year, Powell also dissented in part from an order that would create a class of radio stations that would serve local communities and underrepresented groups because of the harm it might cause to existing stations—namely, signal interference and erosion of economic viability—even though he thought the order’s goal was laudable.

His critics among the public interest groups still concede that Powell is bright and a good listener, even if he doesn’t always come around to their point of view.

“What people like about Michael Powell is that, agree or disagree, his positions are well thought out,” Scott Cleland, an analyst with the Precursor Group in Washington, told the Associated Press. “What you see is what you get.”

Born March 23, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., while his father was in Vietnam, Michael Powell had his own military career cut short when he was injured in a 1987 training accident. He was retired from the service and went on to earn his law degree at Georgetown University.

Before coming to the FCC, Powell served as chief of staff of the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

Kennard’s legacy

During Kennard’s three-year tenure as chairman, the FCC successfully implemented the eRate program—the nation’s largest program to bring technology to education—though not without a few hitches.

Kennard oversaw $6 billion in eRate discounts, which helped connect 95 percent of elementary and secondary schools, more than one million classrooms, and more than 58,000 libraries to the internet.

“I fought hard to bridge the digital divide and to ensure that the benefits of the digital age reach all Americans. I am enormously proud of the success of the eRate program, which wired our nation’s schools; our groundbreaking policies to extend access to people with disabilities; and our commitment to minority employment and opportunity,” Kennard said in his resignation letter to former President Clinton.

The eRate program is funded by telecommunications companies’ universal service contributions. Phone companies, which carry a considerable amount of weight on Capitol Hill, lobbied vociferously against the program, arguing that the FCC expanded the program well beyond what Congress had intended when it created the program as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

In his resignation letter to former Vice President Gore, Kennard described the eRate as “a magnificent achievement that will benefit America’s schoolchildren for decades to come.”

Kennard received considerable criticism for the eRate program. Opponents on Capitol Hill labelled it the “Gore tax” or the “FCC tax,” since the telecommunications companies that fund the program pass on the charge to their customers.

Under Kennard’s leadership, the FCC converted some of the required filing and licensing to electronic formats, making it more convenient for schools and libraries to apply for funding.

Also during his tenure, the FCC created a new low-power radio service designed to allow schools, churches, and other community-based nonprofit groups to build stronger communities. Although the service was scaled back by Congress at the urging of incumbent broadcasters, the FCC still will issue hundreds of new licenses for the service.

According to the FCC, Kennard plans to serve as a senior fellow and advisory board chair of the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program in Washington, D.C., where he will advise on communications policy, program activities, and operations.

Kennard’s departure leaves two Democrats and two Republicans, including Powell, sitting on the FCC panel. On Jan. 31, Furchtgott-Roth announced he would not seek a second term as commissioner but will stay on until a successor can be appointed, meaning President Bush will have two nominations to make.

Links:

FCC Chairman Michael Powell
http://www.fcc.gov/commissioners/powell

Federal Communication Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org