WASHINGTON, February 26, 2009 – With or without the national economic downturn, Meredith Atwell Baker doesn’t seem to mind being unemployed.
The former Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce – who spent much of 2008 as the public face of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s coupon program for digital television converter boxes, didn’t express many regrets about her time at NTIA as she delivered the Thursday morning keynote to the Catholic University of America’s annual Communications Law Symposium.
This month Congress delayed the DTV transition, from February 17, 2009, to June 12, 2009 – in part out of concern that many citizens who rely on over-the-air television would be without converter boxes.
Looking back on her time in Washington, Baker called the changes in technology over the course of her career “incredible – a transformation in what the [telecommunications] industry looks like.” Reminiscing on her first mobile phone, Baker contrasted its size (it was a large Motorola “brick” phone) and its price (expensive enough to be meant for emergencies only) with current technology.
Baker moved to Washington after law school to work at the State department. But she followed many of her peers to a relatively new Cellular Telephone Industry Association, now officially known as “CTIA – The Wireless Association. ”
The young cellular industry was the “poster child of the [Telecommunications Act of 1996],” Baker said. Because regulators’ attention was focused on wireline competition, everybody managed to get along. “We got to do whatever we wanted,” Baker recalled.
She said she considered that among her early successes at CTIA was the adoption of 911 as a national emergency number for cellular telephones. And to increase demand, CTIA created the “Wireless Heroes” campaign to highlight the safety benefits of cellular phones. The campaign still exists, she said proudly.
Even at CTIA, then considered on the cutting-edge, the association’s internet access came from dial-up America Online service, Baker recalled. And discussions of broadband elicited snickers and drawings of “girls playing instruments,” she said.
But when Baker moved to NTIA five years ago, there was an open question before her: “How can we incentivize companies to build these fat pipes?” The answer was in facilities-based competition, she said.
The conservative Bush administration believed the role of government in technology was to “set the environment and incentivize new technology, to level the playing field,” and to deregulate, Baker said.
And while Baker was proud of her success at “clearing out the regulatory underbrush,” she wished broadband had been a higher profile issue at NTIA. Policies in place allowed broadband subscribership to grow from less than 5 million to over 100 million users, she said.
NTIA’s efforts led to more transparent and efficient use of spectrum by government and industry, Baker said. “I think we got a lot of things right,” she said. And the next administration should “keep at it: there’s a lot more to do.”
The future of NTIA includes challenges such as developing a national broadband map, and a true national broadband strategy. “What an exciting task,” Baker exclaimed. But she was sober in her assessment that networks “aren’t everywhere, and they aren’t affordable to all.”
Baker hopes the national broadband map will shed light on how to improve things. “There’s a proven way to approach it,” she said, but warned that in the rush to distribute stimulus funds, NTIA could lose sight of the goal.
And though a new Democratic administration is taking over, Baker was effusive with praise for the new regime. The new team is “incredibly talented,” Baker said. Acting FCC chairman Michael Copps has done “an incredible job,” she said.
And Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., is a “true detail man,” she added. “I think he actually understands the tubes.”