FCC Vetter Jamison: Do We Need an FCC?

In staffing his FCC transition team, President-elect Donald Trump has tapped a pair of American Enterprise Institute (AEI) vets and free-market deregulators in Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison.

While it is tough to predict which Trump will set the tone for the FCC -- the merger-threatening populist who has said he opposes the AT&T-Time Warner deal and would unwind Comcast-NBCU or the regulation-threatening candidate who said he wants two regulations axed for each new one added -- the choice of the transition team leadership could be instructive.

Eisenach and Jamison are linked at the communications deregulatory hip by AEI, a free-market think tank. Eisenach is director of AEI's Center for Internet, Communications and Technology Policy, while Jamison is a visiting fellow there. Eisenach is executive editor of AEI's TechPolicyDaily.com, while Jamison is a writer for the site.

While Eisenach has gotten attention, as a key overall transition team member, for his deregulatory views, in issues including net neutrality, Jamison's appointment adds some new deregulatory punch. "Regulation is about disappointing people at a rate that they can endure," Jamison has written. He is clearly out to "disappoint" people less.

He is the director of the Public Utility Research Center (PURC) at the University of Florida and has written extensively on telecom issues.

Among the recent headlines of his posts on TechPolicyDaily are:

"Restoring Effective Leadership at the FCC" (he concluded that the FCC under chairman Tom Wheeler has been politicized, less than analytical and lackeding transparency); "Why Secretary Clinton's Broadband Policies Will Fail" (Jamison said broadband subsidies are inefficient) and even "Do We Need the FCC?"

His enigmatic answer to the latter: "No, but yes."

Jamison said in the post that most of the reasons for having an FCC have "gone away," in part because there are few telecom network monopolies, and ISPs are rarely among those few. That is quite different from the Wheeler FCC's emphasis on ISP gatekeepers to justify various regulatory approaches, including net neutrality and broadband privacy rules, both of which are likely to get a second look under a Republican chair.

Jamison also said Web content is a competitor to broadcasting --  and sufficiently so that it would seem to "eliminate any need for FCC oversight of broadcasters."

Broadcasters have been arguing for years that the FCC was wrong not to include Web content as a competitor when it looks at its media ownership rules.

Jamison conceded there might be need for rules for the airwaves during times of emergency, but said that does not require regulating the content providers themselves.

He srgued that the reasons the FCC still exists have more to do with inertia -- an aircraft carrier is tough to stop once it gets going -- and the fact that it benefits businesses and special interests, sounding a populist note that resonates with the Trump mantra.

"The recent work on net neutrality, business data services and set-top boxes are bestowing benefits to some segments of the industry at the expense of other segments," he said, "and at the expense of customers, who ultimately bear the brunt of regulatory rent-seeking. The FCC’s universal service subsidies have, for example, delivered profits to numerous telephone companies over the years. And the cottage industries formed in support of net neutrality, set-top box regulation and universal service policies employ a large number of people.

So, what is the "yes" in Jamison's answer to whether an FCC is needed? He said it "appears" to be "important to keep radio spectrum allocation independent of day-to-day political pressures." Traditionally, even deregulatory Republicans have conceded that some spectrum cop is needed on the beat.

While Jamison has plenty of criticisms of Wheeler, he is a fan of several former chairs, including Republican Michael Powell, currently head of NCTA: The Internet & Television Association, as well as two Democrats, Reed Hundt and Bill Kennard, both chairs under President Bill Clinton).

Jamison said Hundt provided lessons in how to build a staff free of political concerns. Kennard got props for giving the agency a larger purpose, with such initiatives as providing pro-competitive models for regulators in other countries and setting an example of independence as an agency. Powell got credit for "decreases in backlogs, improved communications and morale, and a stronger esprit de corps"; he "built deep commitment, ownership, personal worth and shared success within the staff."

"Strong leadership at the FCC is needed regardless of the new administration’s regulatory agenda," Jamison wrote. "If the FCC’s work remains largely unchanged, the rebuilding is needed to ensure that the agency is strong enough to provide substantive decision-making and to withstand future politically-oriented chairmen. If the administration follows the other extreme and moves to largely disband the agency, effecting the change will require strong leadership."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.