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The Digital Future

Michael Powell's chairmanship of the FCC has suffered its share of setbacks. He has endured court rejection of broadcast-ownership deregulation and the agency's decision to allow cable companies to bar competing Internet service providers (ISPs) from their high-speed networks.

But Jonathan Cody, a Powell aide since 2001, isn't discouraged. He sees these high-profile losses as minor skirmishes in the larger battle to revamp communications regulation in the digital age. "In terms of changing the direction of communications policy, his term has been a wild success," says Cody, Powell's current advisor on media issues.

Cody's assessment may be a bit rosy.

After all, Powell has been blasted for his deregulatory endeavors. First, by Internet startups angered at a policy that allows cable-owned ISPs enormous control over Web surfing. Then, lawmakers trying to rewrite the FCC's broadcast-ownership deregulation joined the chorus. But Cody says such criticism misses the FCC chairman's larger goal: encouraging companies to build new technologies for delivering video and information services.

"Our efforts have never been about deregulating this industry or that," Cody says. "It's promoting new technologies at a quicker pace. The president's now talking about broadband. That's because of Michael Powell."

Of course, Cody is hardly an objective judge. He has helped set Powell's telecom agenda since joining his staff three years ago.

"Jon has been a top advisor for years," says Powell, "but I have come to depend on his insight and expertise even more in the past year," since Cody became media advisor.

He was originally hired as a special advisor— only nine months after getting a law degree from Catholic University. Previously, Cody had served as the chairman's intern and then had worked briefly for a Washington law firm.

A blunt-talking New York native, Cody admits his scant experience caused him trepidation. But classmates convinced him that the chance to be mentored by the FCC chairman was too good to pass up.

Together, he and Powell mapped out a plan to push through policies to encourage broadcast stations, cable companies, telephone providers and owners of every other telecom delivery system to speed up construction of their digital networks. Their goal has been to "commoditize" those networks; none would have a lock on delivery of video, voice and other digital services.

Thanks to massive digital buildouts, Cody believes Powell has accomplished his mission. So it is no surprise that Cody jumped at the chance to become his media advisor.

"I wanted to better understand the businesses that are content-related. If you believe there will be multiple platforms for delivering communications, value goes to those providing content: media companies. When you see Comcast trying to buy Disney, it's because they recognize that the digital future will be about content."

Despite the tumult, Cody loves his job. And he's grateful he didn't pursue his initial exposure to law.

After earning a degree in political science from Alfred University, Cody waited a year before going to law school. Instead, he took a legal-assistant job at a Manhattan firm that specialized in insurance litigation. "You could see the boredom on the associates' faces. When we had a slip-and-fall case, we would just pick up the standard slip-and-fall brief from 1980 and copy it."

At night, Cody scoured the pages of BusinessWeek, Forbes
and Fortune
to glean a quick financial education. "In that year, the Internet and telecom went from the back of the magazines to the front," he says, realizing this was a career-making area.

That realization led him to Catholic University in Washington. It had a respected communications-law program and FCC internships.

Yet even with his success, the former college lacrosse player still dreams of a career in sports management. "The sports thing is always in the back of my mind," says Cody. "It's one of my passions."