Online Extra: The FCC's Front Man Talks

Kevin J. Martin discusses family-friendly programming, the importance of deploying new tech fast, and how Hurricane Katrina has changed his job

Since he took over as Federal Communications chairman in March, Kevin J. Martin has scored some key unanimous decisions from an agency split 2 to 2, along party lines.

As he waits for the White House to fill vacancies that will give him a Republican majority, the FCC chief is now set to approve the historic mergers of SBC (SBC ) and AT&T (T ), and of Verizon (VZ ) and MCI, by as early as the end of October (see BW Online, 8/31/05, "So Long, AT&T? Not So Fast").

Then, he tackles an ever-thornier set of issues, ranging from indecent broadcasts to the rewrite of the telecom laws. Martin discussed upcoming issues with BusinessWeek's Washington correspondent, Catherine Yang, on Oct. 12. Below are edited excerpts of that conversation.

What do you want to accomplish most during your tenure?

The Commission's top priority is broadband deployment and to make sure other new technologies are deployed as quickly as possible.

Are you troubled that the U.S. ranks No. 16 in the world in broadband penetration?

It should be a concern of the Commission to make sure that broadband technologies -- both wire-line and wireless -- be deployed as quickly as possible.

When you compare where we stand internationally, you have to take into account that we have very large sections of the country that are rural and where it costs more to deploy (see BW Online, 6/28/05, "Good for Cable, Bad for America").

For example, Massachusetts and Japan have about the same population density. Massachusetts is ahead of Japan in broadband penetration. But that doesn't mean there's not more we can do.

You have long backed measures to curb indecency in broadcast programming. How do you plan on furthering that agenda now?

There has been a growing concern among a lot of parents about programming that's on TV and radio. The Commission should focus on enforcing its rules and providing as much clarity as it can.

When I took over as chairman, there were a large number of cases pending for a long time. I'm trying to work with colleagues to see if we can put together an order that deals with a large number of cases that were pending.

Anti-indecency advocates want cable companies to offer their programs à la carte, so that consumers can pick and choose the shows they buy. Do you support this idea?

The cable industry should do something to provide parents with more tools to control what their kids watch. Cable operators could put together a package of all channels geared to families and children and sell it separately from channels not for families and children.

Last year, a federal appeals court overturned FCC rules relaxing restrictions on media consolidation. How will you rewrite the rules to pass court muster?

The Commission needs to find a way to modify its rules to take into account changes in technology, to allow these companies to compete with one another and with new forms of media and entertainment.

But the Commission also needs to be responsive to the courts, which said we didn't provide enough justification for some of the changes. The commission is going to have to open up a new proceeding to gather additional information from outside parties to make sure our decisions are based on the record gathered.

Should broadband providers have to pay into the universal service fund, which taps long-distance fees to subsidize phone service for rural and low-income households?

What I advocate is moving to a technology-neutral way of collecting universal service funds. Telephone numbers are technology-neutral. Whether you're a wire-line provider, wireless provider, or new VOIP provider, [your customers] need a telephone number. [By assessing charges per phone number,] we're could [put a system in place to] collect money from consumers regardless of which technology they use.

One hot regulatory issue involves the efforts of phone companies to win approval from local cable-franchising authorities to provide TV services over fiber networks. Do you favor a broad granting of authority allowing phone companies to go ahead?

Local franchising authorities have the responsibility of granting access to their communities. But the 1992 Cable Act says local franchising authorities are not allowed to [unreasonably prevent] second entrants [in a market] from coming (see BW Online, 9/28/05, "Verizon's Muddy TV Picture"). The Commission may hold a proceeding to see if we have a role in [the franchise approval process].

How has Hurricane Katrina changed your priorities at the FCC?

It emphasizes the importance of public-safety issues. Communications [capability] is so critical to everything we do. It affects every aspect of our lives, the way we educate our children, the way we work, the way health care will be delivered.

When a disaster like Katrina happens, it only highlights how important communication is. It's important to be alerted to what's going on. You need to be able to call the police, the fire department, loved ones. Emergency first responders need information, and they need to receive calls from those in need.

Why have you taken such a strong stand to require Internet phone providers to link up to 911 operators -- at a time when many warn of saddling new technologies with too much regulation?

There's nothing we can do that's more important than making sure new communications services don't leave people unconnected with emergency personnel.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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