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TAKE FIVE: FCC's McDowell is Kevin Martin's Loyal Opponent

Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell concedes he has differed from FCC Chairman Kevin Martin on a number of issues lately, but his divergent points of view on some issues don't indicate a larger rift between the two.

The independent-minded commissioner cautions against a heavy regulatory hand on the Internet, and takes issue with new broadcast localism proposals that have broadcasters worried. He believes the FCC already has the authority to keep the Internet open, and says broadcasters are already programming to their communities and don't need the government to exhume old rules.

McDowell, who says he thinks DTV transition is on track for a smooth switchover, talks about the analog shut-off and other issues with B&C Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton.

The network neutrality issue has heated up once again. What can and should the FCC do about networks blocking or degrading Internet content or applications?

I think the commission has the authority to prevent blocking and other anticompetitive conduct. That statutory authority was codified decades ago in this context, but it also has broad, sweeping authority.

At the same time, if the commission does anything, we need to ensure that network operators have the ability to manage the traffic flow over their networks. So, if there is a legitimate congestion issue based on a certain kind of application, network operators should have the liberty to address that without having to suffocate under unnecessarily burdensome mandates.

But that sounds like you would be OK even if the “network management” is application-specific.

Not necessarily. The litmus test has to be, “Is it anticompetitive?” “Discrimination” is a dirty word in many contexts except with engineers. “Discrimination” to an engineer means network management and can be a good thing. Human beings as consumers tolerate delay and interference less patiently when it comes to video applications than data applications, so those applications have historically been given priority.

There are fewer than 300 days left until the switch to DTV. How's it going?

I think we are on track for a smooth DTV transition. I think we can measure consumer awareness as being very high. Also, it's very hard to turn on the television without falling over a PSA on this, and I think that's terrific. I am sure there will still be some people who fall between the gaps on Feb. 17 of next year. So we, and more importantly broadcasters, have to do everything we can.

What about the people who fall between the gaps because of issues with DTV antennas or the fact that most low-power stations will still broadcast in analog?

There are a number of concerns. There is the “falling off the cliff” concern in which some people who are between signals are going to be left without a digital signal at all. But I think that can be addressed in the long run once we find out where those areas will be. Low-power TV [LPTV] is a concern, but I am optimistic again that LPTV stations have time to do a good job to educate their viewers about what they need to do.

What are your issues with Chairman Martin's proposals on broadcast localism?

The media marketplace is more dynamic, competitive and diverse than ever. I disagree with the notion that we have to dust off 30-year-old rules to apply to the marketplace.

You appear to disagree with Chairman Martin a lot these days, or is that appearance deceiving?

I guess on some issues, but I have had about a half-dozen. I think Commissioner Martin had more than two dozen dissents against [former] Chairman Michael Powell. So, if in almost two years I have had six, and in four years he had 27, my per-year dissent rate is a lot lower than his was. So, I don't think there has been an epidemic of dissenting.

John Eggerton
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.