Google, the New King of Telecom Policy

It’s hard to believe that it was just two years ago that Google co-founder Sergey Brin embarrassed himself and the company with a poorly planned attempt at lobbying Capitol Hill. Fast forward to Thursday afternoon, when the chairman of the FCC uncharacteristically hung out with Google co-founder Larry Page, walking reporters and assorted policy wonks through the machinations that led to the FCC’s decision to open up television white spaces as unregulated spectrum, a ruling pushed hard by the Googlers.

The white spaces ruling was just the latest in a string of telecom policy successes for the search giant, making it an easy call to say there’s no company currently better at manipulating regulators than the kids from Mountain View.

Meet the new boss? Google’s Rick Whitt, left, and AT&T’s Jim Cicconi.

While Google’s lead telecom lawyer (”there’s got to be a better word than lobbyist”) Rick Whitt will always point out that his staff is much smaller than the 700-strong legal troops under Jim Cicconi’s command at AT&T, Whitt’s team does have some significant arrows in its quiver which have perhaps accelerated Google’s influence: The passion supplied by geeky billionaires like Page, who can summon “M.I.T. grads who live and breathe radios” from Google’s engineering ranks to geek out with the FCC’s technical staff; the company’s quasi-religious desire to “do good by the Internet,” which still sounds wholesome even as the company admits that such efforts benefit Google on the bottom line; and its apparent disinterest in benefitting directly from legislative or regulatory action, a stance that makes Google much different from traditional telecom players whose lobbying efforts are almost always directly tied to profits.

The white spaces issue is a good example — Google’s Page admitted the company has no grand plan to help deliver services in the spectrum, or to help produce and deliver white-space devices. Google, Page said, simply wants to help make it easier and cheaper to obtain Internet access, and — smartly — the company focused on freeing desirable spectrum first, leaving the technical and marketing details for later. Unlike the pending universal service reform question — where Martin’s proposals will greatly benefit incumbent carriers like AT&T and Verizon — the Google white spaces stance is an easy one to back, since it costs Martin nothing politically (opponents like broadcasters, for example, can’t simply point to Google making money since the link isn’t direct).

Added on top of the 700 MHz spectrum auctions (where Google bluffed its way to having the FCC impose open-network conditions on a big chunk of spectrum) and the Comcast net neutrality smackdown (where Google didn’t directly participate but benignly supported the FCC’s actions), the white spaces vote is another win for Whitt, whose stock should rise even more with the arrival of another Google friend in the White House.

While we’re not naive enough to think that Google will all of a sudden outflank the major telcos in any head-to-head battle (care to wager who might have helped fuel the political opposition to the Google-Yahoo search deal?), it’s worth noting that Google’s sudden rise in influence has coincided with a new gentlemanly tenor in net neutrality discussions. More thoughts tomorrow (or on the weekend) on the next steps for net neutrality, and maybe a new top 10 list! Stay tuned…

(Photo by Paul Kapustka (c) Sidecut Reports, 2008.)

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