WASHINGTON, February 11, 2009 – Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps said he had “no idea” how long he will hold the gavel, but he has no intention of being a mere seat-warmer.
Speaking at a press briefing Wednesday morning, Copps outlined an ambitious agenda of institutional reform, welcoming Congress’ investment in broadband deployment, and emphasizing his plans to encourage more growth in high-speed networks.
Most the briefing was devoted to the upcoming transition to digital television. Originally set for February 17, last week Congress moved the date of the transition to June 12, 2009.
Speaking about the broadband stimulus legislation that passed the Senate on Tuesday and is currently in conference negotiations, Copps said that the FCC is “trying to hit the ground running” to collect better data on broadband availability.
The agency will have no problem coming up with definitions of unserved and underserved areas within the 45 day period imposed by the bill. Regardless of who is in charge of administering the stimulus bill’s grant programs, Copps stressed that the FCC is ready to do its part to foster inter-agency cooperation to ensure the public’s dollars are well spent.
One of Copps’ initial goals at the FCC is to reopen lines of communication within the FCC. Better communication will “unleash the huge reservoirs of talent, energy and intellect” at the agency, he said.
Every commissioner should be included in the flow of information between the FCC’s various bureaus — a sharp contrast to what he called “opaque” practices that were commonplace under former chairman Kevin Martin. Martin was often criticized for keeping other commissioners in the dark on important decisions, and for hindering communication between the bureaus.
Copps said he had already begun to include representatives from each commissioner’s office at the weekly meeting of bureau chiefs. He also said he wants to ensure that “synergies” within the agency are taken full advantage of. The bureaus should know what the other bureaus are doing. Such policies would ensure that “everyone [at the FCC] has a better idea of what is going on,” he said.
Copps was adamant about revitalizing the culture and mission of the FCC. “We need transparency in this agency,” he said, emphasizing that the FCC is consumer protection agency. The commission should focus on its goal of serving the public interest, rather than acting as “a referee between well-heeled interests.”
The commission needs to make it easier to include consumer input in its decisions as well as make proceedings and information more accessible to the public, Copps said.
Referring to the generally terse notices of ex parte proceedings — issued when a party meets with a single commissioner, Copps said the public should be able to know more than about them than “such-and-such Inc. met with Commissioner Copps, they talked about retransmission consent, period.”
“That’s not a public record that a transparent agency needs to have,” he said. “Knowing who met with who is important, but so is knowing what is actually said.”
The FCC also needs to return to a “culture of predictability,” Copps said. The commission should operate based upon rules and “fact-based” policymaking, he said, and use information gathered professionally and neutrally – as “an agency acting under rule of law.”
Reaching those goals would “take a while to get all the way,” he said, noting that he was encouraged by the open government initiatives of the new administration that would allow the agency to better perform in the public interest.
As regards the national broadband strategy called for by the fiscal stimulus legislation current in conference committee, Copps said that a nationwide broadband network can’t be built in an uncoordinated fashion.
Getting it done will depend on successful public-private partnerships, and the innovative ideas they can generate, he said. Copps noted that well-executed infrastructure projects have always relied on created policy environments that foster successful partnerships. Why it hasn’t been done with broadband remains a mystery, he said.
Copps also announced the dates for upcoming open meetings going into the next three months, and while he acknowledged he won’t be running the show forever, he may yet be in the driver’s seat for some time.
It has been widely reported that President Obama had selected Julius Genachowski, a former aide to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama’s, to fill the chairman’s seat. Senate Commerce Committee staff said that no confirmation hearing has been scheduled since they had not yet recieved Genechowski’s official nomination papers.