New FCC chief seems friendly to ed

Kevin J. Martin, President Bush’s choice to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) into a new era of digital transmissions, is a firm supporter of the eRate and other telecommunications programs that benefit education, according to an analysis of his voting record and public statements he has made as an FCC commissioner.

That might bode well for schools, which have seen the eRate come under renewed scrutiny in recent months. Most recently, the embattled $2.25 billion-a-year program–which pays for up to 90 percent of the cost of telephone, internet, and wiring services for the nation’s poorest schools and libraries–was the subject of a federal report criticizing the FCC for its lax oversight of the eRate (see “GAO report blasts eRate oversight).

Greater public scrutiny and a congressionally backed report demanding widespread reform should spur Martin to restore credibility to the eRate. But that’s only one of several challenges that await the new FCC chairman, who also must lead the agency in deciding how voice-over-IP services–widely referred to as VoIP–will be regulated and how the Universal Service Fund, which pays for the eRate, will be overhauled.

Bush tapped Martin–a Republican who once served as an advisor on the president’s 2000 campaign–to head up the agency March 16 following the resignation of Michael Powell, the son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who spent much of his tenure at the helm fighting indecency on the airwaves and promoting the adoption of digital television in homes.

“State eRate coordinators are delighted with the appointment of Commissioner Martin to the position of [FCC] chair,” said Gary Rawson, eRate coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Education and chairman of the State eRate Coordinators Association, a consortium of 41 state eRate directors across the country.

Martin and his staff “have always been accessible to our members on a number of issues, and we look forward to working with him in the upcoming months on ways to improve the eRate program,” Rawson said.

In contrast to his predecessor, Martin is known as a coalition-builder who, from time to time, has reached out across party lines to achieve compromise. That should serve him well in navigating the tough regulatory challenges that await the FCC, analysts say.

Martin assumed the high-profile post on the same day the General Accountability Office (GAO), the research arm for Congress, released a report calling on the FCC to increase its oversight of the multibillion-dollar eRate, which lawmakers have criticized for perpetuating a cycle of “waste, fraud, and abuse.” The program’s bureaucratic red tape also has frustrated–and, at times, failed–many of the nation’s most underserved schools.

Regarding the eRate, Martin has advocated in the past that any unspent funds should be returned to the pool for future applicants to use. His opinion differed from that of his predecessor. Powell, also a Republican, would have preferred that unspent funds–collected from telecommunications carriers, which then pass on the cost to their customers–be returned to telecommunications providers to help stabilize customers’ telephone bills.

During his tenure as FCC commissioner, Martin repeatedly showed a willingness to break with Powell or his other fellow Republican, Kathleen Abernathy. In 2003, Martin crossed party lines again to side with the agency’s two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, rejecting the proposed elimination of federal anti-competition laws that enable local telephone providers to lease networks owned by national carriers at discounted prices.

While the dissension represented a blow for Powell and angered lobbyists working on behalf of the telecom industry, it helped establish Martin as a compromiser–one who values the creation of public policy over the perpetual logjam of partisan politics, some say.

In general, Martin hasn’t made as many statements for the record as his colleagues, which makes his positions harder to pin down. But based on what he has said for the record, it’s clear that education and children’s issues are among his top priorities.

“We need to provide parents with better tools to help them navigate the entertainment waters,” noted Martin in a statement addressing the rise in indecency complaints received by the FCC from consumers.

“The FCC needs to be more responsive,” he wrote, affirming his status as a hawk in the battle against indecency by proposing four steps to better protect children from offensive television programming.

Here are his four suggestions: more aggressive enforcement of the law; giving local broadcasters more latitude to reject programming that could be construed as offensive in their viewing area; reinstating the family viewing hour, which would dedicate the first hour of prime time to family programming; and encouraging cable and satellite broadcasters to provide alternative solutions for concerned parents.

Martin’s interest in education also was evidenced in a June 2004 statement affirming the commission’s rejection of a plan that would have allowed schools to sell their portion of the wireless spectrum, known as Instructional Television Fixed Service, to broadband and wireless companies. Providers had sought access to the schools-only band as a way to support the growing number of wireless phone users.

“Encouraging and supporting education is a crucial value to our society, and that value is reflected in the reservation of spectrum for educational users,” wrote Martin in a statement backing the agency’s decision.

Whether Martin’s largely pro-education record will bode well for the eRate remains to be seen. Still, Sara Fitzgerald, vice president of Funds for Learning, an educational consulting firm specializing in eRate guidance, says the agency under Martin is well-positioned to begin restoring credibility to the embattled school wiring project.

“The FCC over the last couple of years has really been responding to these concerns,” Fitzgerald explained. Most notably, she said, the Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB)–the branch of the FCC responsible for overseeing eRate compliance–has vowed to reduce the number of appeals currently clogging the system. In some cases, schools reportedly have been forced to wait up to two years before hearing back from the FCC as to why their applications were denied–a reality that has left many eRate applicants scrambling for alternative sources of funding.

Falling in line with the recent GAO recommendation that the FCC take a more proactive role in fixing the program, Martin has stated publicly the need for FCC leaders to assume greater eRate leadership.

In August 2004, Martin dissented in part with a series of new program rules that would cede additional program oversight to the WCB. “I don’t join in the decision to delegate some of the commission’s oversight and policy making to the bureau,” he said, indicating his preference to make better eRate supervision a priority of the broader commission. Martin also will inherit the difficult task of reevaluating–and possibly, reforming–fees for universal service.

The fees, paid by long-distance providers to local telephone companies, are used to subsidize phone service and internet access in rural communities. Thanks to the rising number of cellular phone users and internet-based callers, though, the need in rural areas reportedly has been shrinking.

Martin supports the universal service program, but he says telecommunications carriers should contribute to the fund based on actual costs rather than future cost projections. “I continue to believe we could better achieve sufficient universal service support and comparability of rates if we base our universal service support system on actual rather than forward-looking costs,” he wrote.

Another program on Martin’s policy plate is VoIP, which lets users place calls via their computers without the use of conventional telephone lines.

A longtime champion of broadband services, Martin has pushed for widespread adoption of IP telephony. “VoIP and IP-based services will provide consumers with personalized applications and content, resulting in more competition and greater choice,” he said in a statement. “These IP services have the potential to spur further innovation and help drive the ubiquitous deployment of broadband and IP networks that will bring greater benefits to consumers in the future.”

Among the issues awaiting resolution under Martin’s chairmanship is whether such calls should be subject to the same fees as regular telephone service, such as for 911 emergency services or bringing telephone service to poor and rural areas. The answer to this question will decide whether VoIP services are eligible for eRate discounts.

Under current eRate rules, only the equipment needed to provide VoIP service is eligible for support. If the FCC eventually rules that VoIP services are telecommunications services subject to regulation, then these services also would be eligible for eRate discounts.

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