FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell on C-SPAN’s ‘Communicators’

National Broadband Plan, Net Neutrality, Wireless January 8th, 2010

, Deputy Editor, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, January 8, 2010 –  With about a month left until the Federal Communications Commission delivers its National Broadband Plan to Congress, Commissioner Robert McDowell spoke about the impending plan – as well as spectrum politics, Net neutrality and competition in the video media landscape – on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.”

Commissioner McDowell began by commending the quality work of the broadband team and the numerous updates and outlines that have been presented over the past year.

The interview with Washington Post Report Cecilia Kang, was conducted before FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski requested a month-long extension of the February 17, 2010, deadline. McDowell said that the agency’s five agency commissioners would have their first look at the broadband plan on February 11. McDowell also said that there was no requirement that the agency would vote formally on the proposal.

A whether there will be any Republican dissent to the plan, McDowell countered that the Republicans and Democrats on the Commission can dissent on any number of issues but that will not affect the outcome of the presentation to Congress.

McDowell hopes Congress will analyze and consider all of the issues and take appropriate action to stir adoption through tax incentives or other means. Once the plan is in the hands of Congress the Commission will then be able to focus on other essential spin off issues such as changes to the Universal Service Fund subsidy program.

When asked about the true purpose of the plan for 2010, McDowell said that while some studies claim that there is already a 95 percent penetration rate for broadband, the true question is whether “those speeds are actually fast enough and whether there is enough bandwidth for cutting edge technologies?”

He followed by explaining that while cable might pass 92% of the country, with an upgrade to DOCIS 3.0, 92 percent of the country might actually be wired to 100 Megabits per second.

Since he came to the agency, McDowell’s main focus has been on the construction of new delivery platforms such as fiber, wireless and satellite. These delivery platforms are the only real way to address the broadband supply gap.

Kang mentioned that the Commissioner’s comments echo some of the most recent correspondence from the administration calling for the need for more competition.

She asked McDowell what are his beliefs on the competitive landscape specifically the wireless sector and how, given the need for competition can one reconcile the fact that the biggest wireless providers are also the biggest providers of fixed wireless, AT&T and Verizon.

McDowell responded that “you cannot have enough competition…since I have been at the Commission, I have looked for ways to create new competition and that obviates regulation on many levels.”

He added, “I would like to see more spectrum audits as long as we manage our expectations ahead of time.” He said that it was very difficult to pin point a time and place to see who is using what spectrum for what purpose.

McDowell said he believed that we are in “The Golden Age of Wireless.” He quoted Marty Cooper, one of the most influential people in the development of the cell phone, in saying that “spectral efficiency doubles every 2.5 years and since the development of radio we are 2 trillion times more spectrally efficient.”

He also added that with the increased use of smartphones there might be a current efficiency gap, but this tension creates more incentives to use the airwaves even more efficiently.

The spectrum efficiency discussion lead to the question of the use of white spaces. McDowell again commended the agency for their November 2008 decision to approve the use of unlicensed devices for unused spectrum. Kang then turned the discussion towards Google’s role in administering the white spaces database and documenting the gaps between the users and the unused spectrum.

She followed up with a question about whether such a task supposed to be performed by a neutral third party can be accomplished by a company like Google with its own communications interest.

While traditionally such a role would have been handled by a truly neutral party, McDowell believes that Google could handle the task as long as their interests are examined.

Next, Kang asked McDowell why he chose to agree to a Net Neutrality rulemaking proceeding when he felt that there would be no need for a new policy? Would there be a new rule or policy that he would be comfortable with, and how can white spaces solve some of the problems with net neutrality policy?

Since the Net Neutrality proceeding comments are due on January 14, McDowell felt the most important feed back would be hard evidence on whether without these rules there will be a systemic market failure.

He understands that his opponents might fear anticompetitive discrimination on behalf of the operators, but he also explained that few instances of discrimination have been handled through the appropriate FCC procedures.

McDowell said he believed that “the cure for anticompetitive conduct is more competition.” He continued, “we have not yet seen the fruits of the newly auctioned 700Mhz spectrum…WiMAX technologies and white spaces.” With these technologies in place, McDowell believes that the consumers will be fully protected.

McDowell said he was worried about the unforeseen consequences of new regulation. “The new regulation would essentially be a tax, and when you tax you tend to get less out of the service.”

In quoting Ronald Reagan he said “they are those that see something moving and they want to tax it, if it keeps moving they regulate and if stop moving then they subsidize it.” McDowell said he did not want that to happen with the Internet.

On a related note, McDowell was asked whether the FCC has jurisdiction to regulate the internet and more specifically the question of search neutrality. He stated that the proposed rules place all regulation on the network operators and not the application providers; however, he welcomes comment from the public as to whether they believe the FCC has such jurisdiction over the search providers.

McDowell also agreed with the dissent in the 2008 Comcast-BitTorrent ruling because he questions whether congress has given the FCC enough authority to regulate information services in such a way.

While McDowell avoided a question on the Comcast-NBC merger, he did admit that the transition of video from fixed cable and satellite to the internet is an exciting area to watch. McDowell believes that these issues are in their adolescent phases and there are issues between subscription and advertising that the market has yet to figure out.

 Therefore it is his belief that government should allow as much room for free experimentation as long as there are no anticompetitive actions taken.

Finally, McDowell ended his interview by welcoming legislation by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to bring more expertise to the FCC and the decision of the Commission to hire their first scholar in residence as a liaison between the Commission and the academic community.

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