Skip to main content

Honor, Duty, Cable

National Cable & Telecommunications
Association president and CEO Michael
Powell seems comfortable in his own,
always-nattily-clad skin, and with his
new mission of making the case for cable in Washington.

In his comfortable office a polished cufflink’s throw
from the Capitol, Powell is surrounded by some telltale
accessories. A framed picture of his father, retired Army
Gen. Colin Powell, faces him from across the room; a
mug from alma mater The College of William & Mary is
close at hand; and on the wall is a painting of the famed
African-American Civil War cavalry regiment, the “Buffalo
Soldiers” — Powell was in the armored cavalry. Together,
they represent the key forces that have shaped him, he
acknowledged: Family, education, and military/public

Powell relaxes in a chair as he prepares to field
questions, but his eyes rarely leave the questioner as he
speaks at length about his approach to industry advocacy
and the issues that face the cable industry. The exmilitary
man comes across in his talk of the information
empire and of a code of honor that he vows political expediency
will never trump. He would rather quit any job
than compromise his principles, he said — something he
expects from those who work for him as well.

It was 10 years ago at McCormick Place in Chicago that then-Federal Communications Commission chairman Powell literally rolled into his first NCTA convention - the former gymnast did a forward roll following an opening act of local kids doing gymnastics. He would not say how he could top that entrance at this week's Cable Show, as he returns to the same venue to deliver his first keynote atop the association.

In his first sit-down interview as head of the NCTA, Powell talked with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about his priorities for the association, the key issues on his plate, and much more. Powell said he will continue the NCTA's tradition of avoiding calls for regulating the competition, and that he will go for impact in his dealings with policymakers rather than wearing a path to their doors. "[W]hen I come to see them, I am coming because it matters, I am coming because this is serious, I am coming because this really has an impact that we do not think advances our interest or the public interest," he said.

Powell is fine with this magazine making the point that he is the fi rst African-American to lead the association, and said he's proud of the industry for "crossing that bridge" when he came to it. But he suggests he will put the exclamation point on that choice with the unique skills and experiences he brings to the post.

But don't talk to him about legacy. He said that the first thing he told his staff at the FCC was that bringing up the "L" word - legacy - was the surest way to get them in trouble: "We are going to do our jobs as best we see it, and only history is allowed to judge whether you have a legacy or not."

MCN: You literally rolled into your first NCTA convention.
How do you top that entrance this time around?

Michael Powell: You didn’t know about that in advance.
You’re not going to know about this one in advance. We’ll
have to wait and see. Nothing is getting revealed.

MCN: Why did you want this job?

MP: The better question is, ‘why not?’ When you look
around and say to yourself, ‘What is going on in the world
that is fascinating and interesting?’ I came to realize this
at the FCC, and continue to be passionate about it, that the
world is going through a great, epic change and the information
age is a real and exciting transformation.

I think it is a critical one for our country and certainly a
critical one for my children.

When I look at this industry, I see an industry that is at the
cutting edge of those questions, broadband, media, information
systems. I think they have cutting-edge assets that are
not only great from a commercial perspective, but are critical
to the country’s hopes and ambitions.

There is a public-servant part of me that not only enjoys
the issues and their significance, but believes that we are all
engaged in some of the most important work for the country’s

I also think this is one of the handful of industries that has
an extraordinarily proud heritage.

If you look around the horn at the leaders of this industry,
you will find a lot of people who have been in this business
most of their adult lives or have fathers or mothers who were
part of this business before them.

They have lived through cable’s birth, its growth and its evolution.
There is a very proud history and heritage there. I think
that cultures that have a good sense of where they come from
are really well-positioned to think positively about where they
are going, so long as they don’t let their past be a limitation on
their vision of the future.

I like the sense of tradition that lives around this industry
and their product.

MCN: What do you mean by the ‘epic change’ going on?

MP: The issues are really challenging and I am a person who
is attracted by these great intellectual challenges, both from
a business and governmental-policy standpoint.

We really are wrestling with what will be the ground rules
for the information space. The issues are tricky, they’re multidimensional
and more difficult because of the ambiguity associated
with the future. Everything seems both possible and
threatening all at the same time.

For me, that is an attractive set of challenges to be a part of.
And finally, at the end of the day, it’s who you get to work with.
The men and women who staff this agency have an impeccable
reputation for quality and hard work. I saw it when I was in the
government and was on the receiving end of their work product.
They enjoyed that reputation around the city.

And I think this is an industry committed to being solutionoriented
and pragmatic and not shrill. It does not see the government
as a tool for leveraging their business interests, but
believes they are committed as a private-sector community
to try to do what they need to do to succeed.

MCN: You had a regulatory philosophy at the FCC. Do you
bring a lobbying/advocacy philosophy to the job?

MP: I’m not sure it is a philosophy, but I guess part of it is. I
am a big believer that everyone has a story and it begins with
telling your story and telling it well. I believe this is an industry
that is focused on the future and needs to be. It needs to
be challenged internally to be forever focused on that future,
and to be focused on it in a way that my 16-year-old is that
sees the world as increasingly personalized and interactive,
with enormous new communications capabilities anytime,

So, what I have said to staff here and to our leaders is that
needs to be first and foremost in how we tell our story — why
are we important to the future and how we are focused in our
vision on the future.

It may sound corny, but I also think that we are patriotic.
What I mean by that is, if the U.S.’s prosperity and place as a
great empire in the information age is not currently assured,
and I would say that it isn’t, and you hope to have the same
enormous productivity and prosperity that generations of the
industrial age enjoyed, then we are partners in that vision. We
are partners with the government and we are partners with
all other parts of that ecosystem who want to see a prosperous
America that promises that same 16-year-old of mine an
American dream in the digital age.

Something else I have thought a lot about was that one of
the things when I got here surprised even me was the enormous
breadth and depth of our philanthropic activities. I don’t
think half the public-policy world knows or fully appreciates
the amount of money, time, sweat and treasure the people in
this industry spend on important causes. I am proud when I
look around that it’s an industry that has a stepped-up commitment
to diversity, both on an ethnic and gender basis.

MCN: On the diversity issue, should we be making the
point that you are the first African American to head NCTA,
or are we beyond that?

MP: You can choose to make the point or not. I can only tell
you that I am proud of this job, period, but I am also proud if
that is a bridge that we’ve crossed, that I am proud that the
industry chose to cross it.

Look, it is the continuation of a story in which more of my
fellow citizens in that community get these opportunities
and should be considered for these opportunities. The way I
think about it is, sure, I am proud of that and would not hesitate
to have it mentioned when people talk about me.

But at the end of the day also I think I am here because I
have some experiences that are important to everyone in the
industry, no matter what their stripe.

MCN: Is there an issue with trying to tell that story for such
a diverse group of members including operators, and programmers
and combined cable and broadcast interests?

MP: It is challenging, but it is doable. For all the
tensions that people make much of, there are
many more instances in which the enormous
virtuous relationship between these diverse interests
is much greater and more important in
totality than any of the incremental skirmishes
that you might note or hear about.

If that is true, then there is a coherent story. Just
like I don’t believe there is any value to the people
who manufacture DVD players if there are no
quality DVDs to watch, and there is no value to the
quality of your DVD if you don’t have the machinery
that will allow you to play your next creative
iteration. All good stories should be simple, not because
they are dumb but because they have clarified a complex environment. That is the kind of
story we are trying to tell and are capable of telling.

MCN: What are the key FCC issues for cable?

MP: A lot of the issues that are giving energy to policy questions
are in part emanating out of the additional new interactions
with Web companies.

It’s about piracy, privacy, cybersecurity, and data security.
A lot of these are at the intersection of network industries,
content and the Web. There are three critical legs of this stool
that are constantly interacting and creating issues.

Anything the chairman does that stems out of the vision
of the National Broadband Plan and the importance of more
broadband to more people more often is important to us. Second,
when I was chairman of the FCC, I know how distorted
the wrong Universal Service policies can be.

To the extent the FCC is focused on constructive reform,
we will share that focus. The commission has very high interest
in spectrum. That may not be our main core issue as
much as it might be the wireless association. But we have
even more companies that are very focused on mobility
as a critical next step in their business visions, and the key
to that mobility is some form of wireless mobility, whether
it be unlicensed Wi-Fi, or licensed spectrum, or other
types of home networks.

MCN: For the second time, the FCC concluded in its 706
report [on the availablity of high-speed and broadband Internet
service] that broadband was not being deployed in a
reasonable and timely fashion. Are you concerned that will
give the FCC a blank check to enact new regulations?

MP: I would hope not, but the mechanics of the statute are
such that when you conclude that deployment is not reasonable
and timely, you avail yourself of potentially a new basis
of regulatory authority. I’m not anti-regulation or pro-regulation.
I am for good or limited regulation if it has a compelling
and demonstrable purpose.

MCN: So, what is the state of broadband

MP: I think we should stop beating ourselves
up as a country. We should be more proud of
what we are doing as a country than not. It is
all well and good to have these comparisons
to other parts of the world, but we live here
in America and our story is not so bad, even
though there is more that we can do. And I am
always suspect of the impulse that there is a
regulatory solution to driving more private
investment. It has been a rare instance when I
have found that that impulse is correct.

MCN: The NCTA has not weighed in on
retransmission consent, which is obviously
a big issue for the cable industry, and could
implicate over-the-top video as well. Why not?

MP: It goes without saying that retrans is an
extremely important issue to all of our companies. The operators
are certainly heavily focused on it and have had any
number of concerns, some of whom are on the record with
the full extent of issues they are concerned about.

Similarly, our programmer companies, this is a source of
their revenue so it is important to them as well. Clearly, this
can be an enormous business tension between the two [parties]:
one who has the desire to limit their expense and the
other the desire to maximize their revenue.

I do think that what they mutually share is there should
be a good or efficient way by which those business questions
are resolved.

But, look, that is an issue [where] we have made a very conscious
decision as an association, given the breadth and diversity
of our association, to have only the most limited role
in the actual regulatory proceeding.

MCN: Do you also hold with former NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow and the NCTA’s
longstanding philosophy of not asking for too much regulatory intervention in your favor
because that sword cuts both ways?

MP: I feel really strongly about that, and it goes far beyond me or Kyle. I remember hearing
Decker Anstrom [McSlarrow’s predecessor] at a meeting when I was a commissioner and
participant when he said that he believed his was an industry that had been given the tools
for its own success or failure and should live or die by virtue of [its] own strategy and execution.
I would be extremely hesitant to see the regulatory process as a tool for propagating
competitive advantage, or worse, just for the purpose of punishing, or restricting or limiting
a competitor for no other reason. I am afraid not all industries see it that way.

When I was chair of the FCC, I was able to witness this from the front row. A lot of what people
do is to come in and ask, essentially, for business advantages dressed up as a regulatory or publicpolicy
issue, but often the public policy when measured by the way they articulated it was anything
that was synonymous with their corporate interests to the detriment to their competitors.

We as an industry are relatively proud that we try very hard to not use the regulatory process
in that way. I believe that is the right approach. I would rather have the credibility with
regulators and congresspeople when I come to see them.

MCN: What matters on the Hill at the moment?

MP: I would really have to say that what really matters on the Hill is budget and deficit politics.
It is an enormous overhang on the nation’s well-being and I think that it is important
to have our own degree of humility against the enormous gravitation pull of that one issue.

[At NCTA] right now we are managing an association that is on about 10 fronts, with activity
all over the Congress.

MCN: For example?

MP: Privacy is an issue that is going to pop up every day
for the rest of my life because now that we as a society
have moved our world online, we are going to have a
steady drum beat of issues associated with data breach
or people’s personal information
finding its way to somewhere we
prefer it not. The Congress is understandably
going to be focused
on that. And we as an industry, who
have always cared about privacy because
we have an intimate relationship
with our consumer, are going to
be engaged in that process as well.

A related issue is cybersecurity. I
can’t underestimate that this is the great Achilles’ heel to the great vision
of the Internet. If we are not effective in deterring or preventing unauthorized
intrusions into our network, the dream will fizzle. We are very
focused on that issue.

MCN: The Commerce Department and the Federal Trade Commission
have talked a lot about letting the industry self-regulate in this
area. What should the cable industry be doing in terms of selfregulation?

MP: We’re not self-regulated. The cable industry is quite meaningfully
regulated under the Telecommunications Act under the area of privacy.
We shouldn’t confuse the way Google or Facebook or Web companies are
regulated around privacy and the way traditional telecommunications
companies have a regulatory relationship with the Telecom Act. We have
significant privacy obligations.

One thing we are very worried about is having to live under both the
Telecommunications Act world of privacy and a whole new regime that was
really designed around Web companies that arguably we are swept into as
well. And then we are living with dual sets of regulatory obligations that
are, oh by the way, not necessarily fairly harmonized.

Contrary to what some would want to say, our companies are not just
railroad tracks. They are innovators of content and services. They also have
Web offerings and they also very meaningfully interact with the Web and
we have TV content that is coming that also interacts and engages the consumer
in a dialogue about data related to that consumer’s preferences.

MCN: The network neutrality debate never seems to go away. What is
the answer?

MP: Don’t I wish I knew. I am actually proud of the industry. I was not
here for the position it ultimately took, but I think that was a perfect example
of everything I said already.

The fundamental issue is actually bigger than net neutrality. It is really
about jurisdiction and power. One issue that is presented for everybody
is: What is the range of the FCC’s jurisdictional power when
it comes to broadband? We are content with what the commission
did, but I am just as interested what the judiciary thinks about the
range of power.

MCN: What are the core principles that you don’t compromise regardless
of the political expedience?

MP: Normally, I say I don’t tell people my personal ones. But I was taught
by some great parents that I don’t compromise anything in the category of personal or professional integrity or ethics. I won’t tolerate
it in myself or in any organization that I am associated with.
And that means acting consistently with your principles and
it means acting no different in your personal and professional
life, and ensuring that your organization fights with
ideas and not emotions. I don’t see any value ever in namecalling,
or personal attacks or character attacks.

I have been attacked that way in public policy, but you would
be hard-pressed to find any article in which I responded in any
similar way. So, I don’t compromise that for anything. I would
quit any job before I would be engaged in a fight like that.

MCN: Since you brought up lobbying, you once called lobbyists
‘self-interested, money-chasing actors.’ Do you still
believe that?

MP: I would say it slightly differently. What I mean by that
is that a lot of times in public policy we act surprised about
the way different players behave or act, and I think it is less
surprising than it seems. And, by the way, I would ascribe
the same things to regulators or public interest groups. Everybody
is motivated by a set of predictable interests and
attempts to maximize those interests and I think that is a
healthy and fair thing to do.

Every shareholder of Comcast expects Comcast to act in the
interest of their shareholders. They are not supposed to compromise
that significantly for them. And so, to be asking companies
to be doing something that is diametrically opposed to
the interests that they represent, it’s tough.

Don’t be surprised that they take positions that they take
because they are predictable. But if you want a solution, you
have to make room in the solution for the genuine interests
that motivate everyone who is in it, whether it is the government,
or a public interest group, or corporation.

MCN: What do you hope your legacy will be?

MP: If you remember from my days at the FCC, one of my
principal rules is that I don’t have conversations about my
legacy until I’m finished.