Ferree for all?

The FCC's new cable chief won't have much of a learning curve, but that experience might not bring solace to the cable industry.

W. Kenneth Ferree, 40, a partner at Washington law firm Goldberg, Godles, Wiener & Wright, has built a healthy practice representing the foes of big cable operators on bread-and-butter issues. Most recently, he represented utilities in their battle to eliminate caps on rates cable companies pay to string wires to power poles. Another former client, Optel, is an overbuilder that fought to gain more access to cable-company wiring inside apartments.

Ferree, named to his new post last week by longtime friend and FCC Chairman Michael Powell, insisted there's no reason for the cable industry to worry. For starters, he has recused himself from dealing with the pole-attachment case, and the agency already has decided to defend the price ceilings before the U.S. Supreme Court. As for other issues on which his clients have opposed the cable industry, Ferree stressed that his clients' views aren't necessarily his own. "I don't come into this with any preconceived notions," he said.

Although Powell clearly wanted a bureau chief with industry experience, it's also likely he didn't want anyone identified too closely with the cable industry.

That's because Ferree's authority may one day extend beyond cable oversight. According to industry and FCC sources, after a planned agency restructuring, he is almost certain to become the head of a new video bureau that would have combined jurisdiction over broadcast TV, cable and direct broadcast satellite.

Ferree, who begins May 21, said he had not been promised the reins of a larger bureau.

Where that leaves longtime Mass Media Bureau Chief Roy Stewart is unclear. Although agency bureau chiefs serve at the pleasure of the agency chairman and typically are replaced with each change at the FCC helm, Stewart has held his post since 1989 and through the tenures of four previous chairmen. But Stewart, 62, also may be ready to retire before Powell completes the consolidation.

It's also unclear which office will take over the Mass Media Bureau's oversight of radio stations.

Mary Beth Richards, head of the FCC's reform effort, told congressional staffers that Powell does not have a timetable for the agency's restructuring.

Ferree also is an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University; Powell, who met him when both were law students there, praised Ferree's "remarkable breadth of experience." Ferree graduated one year ahead of Powell; both men also clerked for Chief Judge Harry Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals.