A New FCC: What Should We Expect?

At last: a full Federal Communications Commission! After months of seemingly interminable delay (due to a confirmation process high-jacked for non-related purposes) a full complement of five Commissioners is now available to pursue the people’s business in communications. And serious business it is.

The two new Commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Agit Pai, bring a wealth of experience, expertise and collegiality to their posts. I know Jessica best because she worked in my office as Senior Legal Advisor during part of my tenure there. She brings a depth and breadth of telecommunications knowledge perhaps unprecedented in scope for a new Commissioner. Both new Members hold great promise for distinguished service at the FCC.

Someone asked me a few months ago, what should we expect of an incoming Commissioner? “Four things,” I replied.

First and foremost, a real “feel” for the public interest. The statute that enables the FCC mentions the public interest, by my informal count, some 112 times. Having once worked on Capitol Hill, I operated on the premise that when Congress told me something once, I figured they were serious. When they told me 112 times, I snapped to attention. A successful Commissioner must stand up and salute the public interest.

“Ah, but that’s so ambiguous,” some will say. “It doesn’t give any guidance to the Commission.” Nonsense! In telecommunications(phones and broadband) the statute makes crystal clear that the “public interest” means encouraging the delivery of the most advanced telecommunications systems feasible to every consumer in the land, no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives. Reasonably comparable services at reasonably comparable prices for all is the clear mandate of the law. From there, Congress made plain the need for consumer protection, competition among providers, and protecting the safety of the people. It’s right there in the law and understanding it requires no great skills of linguistic exegesis.

In media, the “public interest” means diversity, localism and competition. Diversity includes programming that covers, and is of interest to, every segment of a broadcaster’s community of service. It means covering diversity of viewpoints and it includes encouraging diversity of outlet ownership, particularly by minorities and women who have been, for all intents and purposes, shut out of the media business. Who owns and runs a station does make a difference in the kinds of programs that are aired. Localism means providing communities of license with news, information, public affairs and cultural programs that reflect the area’s true needs and interests. It means providing opportunities for self-expression and for the discussion of opposing viewpoints. Competition means that use of the people’s airwaves is not guaranteed in perpetuity to any license holder and that if a station falls short in its obligation to serve the public interest, the license can (and should) go to someone else. Competition also means keeping a community’s media in a community’s hands to the extent possible and discouraging ownership from afar by a few huge media conglomerates that too often replace community programming with stultifying homogenized fare. Diversity, localism and competition—these three—are the public interest ingredients that keep people informed and our democracy fueled.

Second, a realization that the issues the Commission deals with are as important as any that the country confronts. In this first quarter of the Twenty-first century, America’s success, both at home and abroad, is hugely dependent upon building communications infrastructure that works for all of us.

Access to broadband is critically important to us as individuals because the door to opportunity and self-realization is increasingly online. Online is where companies recruit and jobs are found. Online is where we increasingly educate ourselves and our children, and it is where many are already turning for better health care in an age when telemedicine is playing a growing role in how we care for ourselves. Broadband access is critically important to us as a nation because there is no problem that confronts us now that does not have broadband as a key component of its solution. It can jump-start new businesses in communities starved for jobs. It can help get us off the hook of our costly energy dependence. It can put the brakes on environmental degradation. And it can help make America competitive again after years of out-sourcing jobs that used to be ours. Not so many years ago, our country was in the vanguard of broadband and the Internet that were invented here. Today we are far down the rank of nations when it comes to broadband penetration. Building broadband out to everyone everywhere in this land of ours is not something it would be nice for us to do—it is something we must do if we want to realize Twenty-first century opportunity and prosperity.

The media issues we confront are equally critical—if not more so. If we as citizens and voters are to make intelligent decisions for the future on all these difficult issues, we must have media that digs for facts, covers the beats, separates fact from opinion, and holds the powerful accountable. As I have said before in this space, getting our media and our journalism right is Step Number One in getting our democracy right.

So the FCC is no outlier agency. It’s not marginal to our national success. It is not something to support in good times and starve in harder times. It’s where the action is—or needs to be.

Third, an ability to work together as a team. The agency has been given oversight of challenges surpassingly important to America’s future, as we have seen. The five Commissioners who, as of this week, constitute the “new” FCC get high marks for collegiality. They have already demonstrated that in their past assignments. I saw Commission collegiality first-hand for more than a decade. Commissioners are almost always talented people who get on well together. And they are backed by a team of experts steeped in communications experience and know-how. Forging Commission consensus is important now more than ever because so much rides on making good decisions. The rest of the world is not waiting for America to get its act together. That’s up to us.

As an aside—but an important one—the new Commission should push hard to over-turn an antiquated statute that actually prohibits more than two Members from ever talking together. Can you imagine what a drag it is on decision-making that the five Commissioners are not able to sit around a table and discuss how to tackle these challenges and how to come up with innovative solutions? What other body works that way? Not Congress. Not the President’s Cabinet. Not the courts. Yet here we have five people with all kinds of relevant experiences, carefully nominated by the President and painstakingly confirmed by the United States Senate (and it’s real pain, believe me!) and… they can’t even talk together! Give me a break. There’s a lot of debate about FCC reform on Capitol Hill these days. Allowing Commissioners to discuss issues and forge consensus together is ten times more important than any other reform that has been suggested. Congress needs to act on this now. I hope the Chairman and all the other Commissioners will proactively encourage it to do so.

Fourth, an understanding of who the Commission works for. The FCC was instituted to serve the people. It is first and foremost a consumer protection agency, charged with making sure that the nation’s communications resources serve the public interest. It is an independent agency, subservient to neither President nor Congress. Its Members are given significant latitude in decision-making (within the parameters of the statutes, of course) because the issues are complex, the agency’s expertise is unique, and time is usually of the essence.

At its best—and its best is what is urgently needed right now—the FCC is open and transparent. It hasn’t always been so. And it’s not all the way there yet, although change for the better has come during the past 3-1/2 years.

It’s not as easy as it may sound. The past 30 years have seen the role of big money and special interests proliferate. (I cannot think of another era in American history when big money has wielded more influence than now—and that includes even the notorious Gilded Age.) So the opportunities for regulatory capture of an agency by the industries it is supposed to be regulating have grown rather than diminished. Corporate lobbyists and lawyers are omnipresent in D.C., armed with the best arguments money can buy and familiar with every nook and cranny along the corridors of power. They have a right to be heard, of course. But they have no more right to be heard than any citizen possesses.

So reaching out to what I call the FCC’s “non-traditional” stakeholders should be every new Commissioner’s first calling. Every citizen has the right to be heard. And the Commission has an obligation to listen. During my two terms at the FCC, I made special efforts to reach out to the disabilities communities, Native populations, minorities, consumer and advocacy groups—the list goes on. These good folks are impacted by Commission decisions as much as anybody else. So my hope is that the new Commissioners will reach out to them personally. Hold hearings where people live (and the vast majority of people actually live outside the Beltway!). Proactively solicit their input before the vote is called. Talk with them, not at them.

So good luck, Jessica and Agit. You’ll do great. Thank you for your willingness to serve and for your already distinguished public service.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries.

By Michael Copps.