Who’ll Call the Shots in Net, Telecom Regulation?

WASHINGTON — Divining the regulatory future of the Internet, media and telecom industries at this point is a little like looking into a telescope with a blurry lens.

Nevertheless, Dick Wiley, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the founder of the prominent Washington law firm Wiley Rein, gave it a shot, with a notable caveat.

“The truth is we’re in sort of a holding pattern today, pending a lot of new government appointments,” Wiley said here Wednesday at a media conference hosted by the BIA consulting group.

The Federal Communications Commission, an agency Wiley chaired back in the early 70s, is heading into a time of “unprecedented change,” he said, with as many as four of the five spots turning over within the next several months.

Wiley, a Republican whose practice has advised big media and telecom firms like Newspaper Association of America and Verizon on public policy matters, was on hand to handicap the shifting landscape of the various regulatory agencies.

Among all the issues on the FCC’s plate once it gets past the transition to digital television, Wiley said “broadband is going to be the big one.”

The FCC is currently gathering public comments as it begins work on a national broadband strategy, a directive included in the February economic stimulus bill. The FCC is also serving in an advisory capacity to the two agencies dispersing broadband grants under the bill, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), a division of the Department of Agriculture.

Wiley had high praise for President Obama’s nominee to head the FCC, Julius Genachowski, whom he called a “very able, smart energetic fellow.”

Genachowski comes to the agency with a mix of public, private and academic experience, and Wiley looks for his chief area of focus to be Internet issues, which could run the gamut from Net neutrality to spectrum reform.

Michael Copps, who could wind up the only commissioner to serve for the entirety of 2008 and 2009, tends to place the highest priority on media issues.

“That’s the good news, the bad news is he wants to regulate it,” Wiley said. Copps has talked about policies to ensure there remains a viable economy for quality journalism, and ending what he describes as a rubber-stamp regime for renewing broadcast licenses.

Obama has nominated Mignon Clyburn, a long-time regional telecom regulator from South Carolina, and the daughter of House Minority Whip James Clyburn.

On the Republican side, sitting Commissioner Robert McDowell’s term is up in June, and Wiley said it’s a political uncertainty whether he’ll be nominated for another five-year term.

“I think he’s certainly earned it,” he said. “But politics are politics, and we’ll have to see how that works out.”

Obama has yet to nominate a candidate to fill the Republican vacancy at the FCC. That was a sore spot among Senate Republicans, who pressured their colleagues across the aisle to postpone Genachowski’s confirmation hearing until a GOP candidate emerged.

At this point, Wiley said the odds-on favorite for the Republican spot is Meredith Baker, the former acting head of NTIA.

The nominees to lead NTIA and RUS are both awaiting Senate confirmation. Lawrence Strickling, Obama’s pick to head NTIA, had his confirmation hearing yesterday, and is expected to be confirmed by the Commerce Committee today.

A hearing for Jonathan Adelstein, who currently serves as an FCC commissioner, to take over RUS has yet to be scheduled.

Between the broadband grants and the appointment of Adelstein, Wiley said he looks for RUS to become an increasingly important agency as the administration looks to deliver high-speed Internet access to remote areas of the country.

Indeed, by his measure, universal, high-speed access figures to dominate the tech-policy agenda for the foreseeable future.

“At the top of the agenda at all these agencies is clearly broadband,” Wiley said.

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