Act Two for FCC's Meredith Attwell Baker
As the Bush administration’s point person on telecommunications policy at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, she headed a $1.5 billion program to help consumers with the transition to digital television. The program was not well received by some lawmakers and public interest groups. They felt the program's centerpiece, an initiative to hand out coupons to defray some of the cost of new digital conversion gear, lacked sufficient funding and left some analog television viewers in the lurch.
“You had an administration that for a number of reasons didn’t feel accountable to the success of the coupon program,” said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumer Union. “But we very much valued the work that Assistant Secretary Baker did to save the boat from sinking.”
Now, Baker has received a second chance of sorts, again in one of the federal government’s most powerful positions in technology policy. She was picked by President Obama as the minority party's representative on the FCC. And she is staking a claim in another controversial debate: over the use of radio spectrum for mobile broadband.
“I think I have some unique things to offer,” Baker said in a recent interview. “The fact that I have worked at NTIA and have knowledge of how spectrum works and can be more efficiently utilized, I felt like I had an obligation to add something here.”
Baker, an ebullient Houston native, needs little introduction within Washington. She is daughter-in-law of former secretary of state James A. Baker III. Husband James A. Baker IV is a senior partner at law firm Baker Botts.
Her introduction to Washington was in high school, when she was an exchange student. Coincidentally, she stayed with the family of FCC chief of staff Edward Lazarus and attended a semester at Sidwell Friends School.
After working at the State Department, she fell into technology policy by accident. Baker followed Steven Barry, a former boss from State to wireless trade group CTIA. Baker then joined the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to work on spectrum management before taking over for John M. R. Kneuer in November 2008.
She converses easily about FCC policy, whether it involves the dense engineering lingo of spectrum policy or the pop culture chatter surrounding Adam Lambert's controversial broadcast performance -- one that brought in more than 3,000 complaints to the FCC.
She recognizes her opportunity at the FCC to brand a new image beyond DTV.
“You know I was voted most optimistic in high school,” Baker said. “There’s the saying that if you need a friend in Washington, get a dog. That’s true to an extent, but I actually believe if you work really hard and do the best you can do, people will recognize that.”
At the FCC, Baker has claimed a spot at the negotiating table by supporting FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s push to unleash more radio spectrum for wireless broadband services.
Earlier in the day of our interview, Baker had Genachowski in her office to talk about spectrum policy, which has become a high-stakes battle between television broadcasters and wireless operators. She believes there’s a middle ground to pursue to allay concerns by broadcasters and demands by the wireless industry. Baker is pushing for smart antenna technology and a database of spectrum to maximize the use of radio waves.
During the run-up to a contentious vote to create new net neutrality rules, she voted with some reservations to begin crafting new rules only after frequent meetings with Genachowski to acknowledge her concerns about the proposal. But she disagrees with Genachowski’s plans to include wireless service providers in a net neutrality policy.
And she’s also signaling her intent to blaze her own path.
“At the NTIA you are a team player and part of a greater economic team at the White House,” Baker said. “Here at the FCC, it’s different. It’s all policy all the time and so much of it.”
December 23, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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