Skip to main content

The Five Spot: Rob McDowell, Partner and Co-Leader, Global Communications Practice, Cooley LLP

Rob McDowell spends his time inside the D.C. Beltway these days, helping telecom, media and tech firms navigate the regulatory and legal maze. He definitely knows the territory. McDowell is the former senior Republican on the FCC, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and reappointed by President Barack Obama in 2009. At the agency, McDowell voted on the framework for the broadcast incentive auction and other spectrum-clearing successes, as well as for deregulating internet-service providers and broadcast ownership. He also led an effort to ban discriminatory broadcast ad practices. McDowell left in 2013 for the private sector. At Cooley, McDowell has advised on the T-Mobile-Sprint deal.

Rob McDowell

Rob McDowell

He spoke with Multichannel News senior content producer, Washington John Eggerton about his theory behind the current political divide in the capital and why he has unwatched PMQT on his DVR.

You were the FCC's senior Republican when you exited in 2013. Why did you decide to leave? I ran out of money. Actually, I did not completely run out of money, but it was for economic reasons. I loved that job, but after seven years it was time to go.

Tell us a little bit about Cooley and what you do. I am co-leader of Cooley’s global communications practice. … We have been very busy on a variety of things, from helping Microsoft with TV white spaces to entrepreneurial tech companies to more traditional broadcasters to mobile wireless — helping T-Mobile in its merger with Sprint — to satellite work with EchoStar, SpaceX and others, from corporate M&A to antitrust to regulatory.

Are you confident Dish Network will be a facilities-based competitor to AT&T and Verizon, and why? Yes, because on Day One it will have not only the Dish subscriber base but the Boost [prepaid wireless] subscriber base and and perhaps the best [multichannel video network operator] wholesale deal in the history of the American wireless industry. Thirdly, it will have access to a terrific network, so, a very powerful blend of midband and high-band spectrum. This will be unlike any other launch of a wireless company in history.

You ran for public office (a statewide race in Virginia) in a less contentious time. Why is it so hard to find common ground now? Primarily, I think it is generational. There is a great book that came out in 1990 called Generations: The History of America’s Future by William Strauss and Neil Howe. We are at a point where the Baby Boomers, who have always been hell-raisers, are entering old age and are in control of every major institution, whether it’s government, media, or business. I think that has something to do with the atmosphere. … There is a lot of acrimony and, hopefully, the pendulum will turn back to a more moderate tone that is more thoughtful and deliberative.

Robert McDowell on the Hill in his FCC days, with then-chairman Julius Genachowski (l.). 

Robert McDowell on the Hill in his FCC days, with then-chairman Julius Genachowski (l.). 

What should be the FCC’s role in regulating the edge be, if any? Only the role that Congress gives it and, right now, Congress hasn’t given it that role. … Edge providers aren’t really in the purview of the FCC and I don’t think the FCC is the right place. The commission is saddled with legacy statutes, some of which go back to 1934. The statutory constructs under which the FCC has to operate aren’t well-suited to the nimble and quickly evolving internet space. If Congress wants to rewrite the laws in a fundamental way I can reconsider that answer, but right now, competition law gives the most flexibility to begin to fashion a body of common law. It’s been 25 years since the internet was privatized and it has actually proven to work pretty well.


What’s on your DVR? A lot of shows that are unwatched because I’ve been so busy, including the Prime Minister Question Time (PMQT) in the British Parliament.
Bucket list destinations? African safari, Greece.
Books on your nightstand?A Farewell to Arms, because my grandfather fought in WWI and last year was the centennial.
Favorite music group? U2
Most memorable recent meal? Thanksgiving, at my brother and sister-in-law’s; my favorite is my wife’s sweet potato casserole.

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.