News

NCTA Likes Mike

3/21/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

Washington —The National Cable & Telecommunications
Association has tapped a former top regulator — or
more to the point, deregulator — to succeed Kyle McSlarrow.

Former Federal Communications Commission chairman
Michael Powell will become president and CEO of cable’s
top cable trade
group on April 25,
with NCTA secondin-
command James
Assey heading operations
between
Kyle McSlar row’s
departure at the end
of this month and
Powell’s arrival.

Powell has been
sounding l ike an
NCTA president-inwaiting
for a while, due
to his deregulatory
philosophy and his
record on cable issues.

As a manager, Powell has a reputation for pushing staffers with praise and encouragement, and can work a room
or slap a back with the best of them. That led to speculation
early in his chairmanship that he would transition into a
job involving politics. It’s arguable that the NCTA job is
such a segue — only without the election part.

In an address to the NCTA faithful a decade ago, while
heading the FCC, Powell had the crowd where he wanted
them. Following up a group of gymnasts, Powell, a former
gymnast himself, did an impromptu roll onto the stage.
He then delivered advice about how MSOs could increase
consumer choice without charging too much for doing so.
As head of that group, he will have to deal with the politics
of a divergent membership that includes programmers
and distributors, cable operators/broadcasters, and
pay TV providers that are also Internet-service providers
and phone companies.

“He is extremely
talented, very
well-respected and
imaginative in his
thinking and certainly
knows his
way around Washington,”
said former
NCTA senior vice
president of law and
regulatory policy
Daniel Brenner, now
an attorney with Hogan
Lovells. “I think
he will be a great asset
to the industry.”

While a number
of media-consolidation
foes avoided
criticisms of Powell’s appointment last week, Free Press
took off the gloves from the opening bell. Under the guise
of “congratulating” Powell, Free Press managing director
and soon-to-be president Craig Aaron said the hire was
the sign of a “furiously spinning revolving door between
industry and the FCC.”

“During his time as a public servant, chairman Powell
once dismissed the notion of a digital divide as no different
from the Mercedes divide that afflicted him — after
all, he said, not everyone who wants a Mercedes can have
one,” Aaron said. “Thanks in no small part to the policies
he pursued at the FCC and to the cable lobby’s unyielding
fight against any real competition in the broadband market,
the digital divide is still with us.”

That was a reference to one of Powell’s first press conferences
as chairman, when he challenged the notion of a digital divide
causing Internet-service providers to bypass poor and rural areas.
He suggested instead it was the understandable access of
wealthier customers to the newest, most advanced products.

But the key divide between Free Press and Powell will
likely be over network neutrality.

Under Powell, the FCC ruled that cable-modem service
was an information service not subject to the common-carrier
regulations of Title II of the Telecommunications Act,
including mandatory access by unaffiliated ISPs.

That presaged the network-neutrality debate that was
anything but resolved by the compromise rules the FCC
adopted last December. Those regulations expand and
codify the guidelines Powell endorsed as part of the decision
to classify cable-modem service, but not nearly
enough for Free Press.

JUMP-STARTED VOIP

The Powell FCC also defined voice-over-Internet protocol telephony
as an interstate service subject primarily to FCC jurisdiction.
That preempted state overregulation and helped
pave the way for cable operators as phone companies. “The
results speak for themselves,” Brenner said, with Comcast
now the nation’s third largest phone company in the U.S. and
most cable companies offering some kind of VoIP product.

Then there was the Powell Plan, which encouraged cable
operators to provide HD service as a spur to the digital conversion.
MSOs initially greeted that plan as a burden, but HD
has become a big selling point for cable, Brenner noted.

“As a former FCC chairman and adviser to Providence
Equity, Michael brings unprecedented government and
business experience to his new position,” Comcast chairman
Brian Roberts said in helping announce the news.
“Michael is respected by the leaders of both the Senate and
House, Republicans and Democrats, as well as the Administration
and the business community.”

NCTA would not comment on terms of the Powell’s deal,
but McSlarrow was among the highest-paid trade association
chiefs in town, according to various reports, at more
than $2 million a year.

September