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Chat with FCC's McDowell; Sees More Media Rules Under Dems

Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell dropped by The Washington Post yesterday to meet with some members of the paper's editorial board and newsroom. McDowell said the FCC has set an ambitious agenda for the rest of the year, and time is running short.

Whether Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are elected, a new administration traditionally changes the makeup of the agency by appointing their own chairman.

If a Democrat moves into the White House, the Republican McDowell said he expects big changes for media. The FCC likely would impose more regulations over television and radio broadcasters.

Specifically, McDowell said those new regulations on media could include rules that local broadcasters staff their stations 24 hours a day, year round to make sure they cover disasters or other important breaking local news. The idea behind the proposal is to stress the role of local news in communities -- a principle championed by some Democrats at the agency and in Congress.

The Commission adopted a rule last November, over McDowell's dissent, that forces television broadcasters to record in detail all public interest content that they air.

"In my view, this is a more competitive media marketplace than ever before," he said. "As eyeballs and ears and ad dollars are going elsewhere, do we really need to be heaping more regulation on an industry that is seeing steadily declining top line revenue?"

Last week, 27 black lawmakers sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, saying a rule to require 24-hour station staffing could hurt minority broadcasters who are facing budgetary problems and declining ad revenues.

Even if McDowell finds himself in the minority of a new administration, it won't be a particularly new position. The majority of the five-member FCC is Republican, but McDowell has often been at odds with Martin, also a Republican. He voted against the chairman's order to punish Comcast for illegally discriminating against certain Internet applications that are used on their network. He dissented against Martin's rule to auction a block of wireless spectrum as an open network for any device and application makers.

He said the open-access rule effectively turned away smaller wireless carriers for bidding on that block of spectrum, enabling only the two biggest carriers to purchase those airwaves.

"Overall the auction was a success but there was less new blood," McDowell said. "Open access was already an idea taking route naturally. By mandating it, it had the net effect of driving out smaller players in the auction."

Yet he disagrees with the notion that consumers lack choice. He said about 95 percent of the U.S. population lives in areas with at least three mobile operators, and more than half of the population lives in areas with at least five competing operators.

"We're about to enter the Golden Age of wireless," McDowell said.

He said Google's open platform phone on T-Mobile's network will bring more competition, as will the deployment of WiMax technology, a broadband wireless service being pushed by Sprint Nextel and Clearwire. Though he stopped short of saying he would vote in favor of the pending merger of Sprint and Clearwire and the merger of Verizon Wireless' with Alltel.

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 7, 2008; 5:50 PM ET  | Category:  Cecilia Kang
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Wonder if McCain will drop the F work in the debate tonight, McCain is no stranger to the f word, see video at http://www.mccanes.com

You can watch McCain and Obama preparing for the debates, including out takes at http://www.watchdebate.com

See who won the watchdebate debator of the year award. http://www.Huckabeeshow.com

Posted by: Anonymous | October 7, 2008 6:41 PM

Hopefully Commissioner McDowell will back off his proactive support of the cable industry to the detriment of those of us that attempt to take advantage of leased access law and provide good local coverage on our own initiative.
Sadly he seems to have no idea some of us have sound business plans to be truly local TV content providers and so he helps cable suppress our efforts to even have the 'level playing field' cable itself cries so loudly for.
McDowell too often appears to be more of a 'shill' for cable than to serve the public.

Posted by: Charlie Stogner | October 8, 2008 7:45 AM

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