What, Not Who, Will Matter More at Obama’s FCC

November 11, 2008

For policy wonks, the time between election and inauguration is sweet — kind of like a fantasy football draft, when everyone tries to figure out who’s going to score the most and the busts to avoid when putting together a new team from scratch. In the small world of things telecom, the hot stove league kicked off in fine fashion today with a BusinessWeek post detailing the short list of fine folks reportedly under consideration to lead Barack Obama’s FCC.

While I joined the conversation about the matter that is earnestly underway over at GigaOM, my further musings on the the subject are a bit more nuanced. As I went through the names and the arguments, it sort of occurred to me that things might be a whole lot different this time around, and so it might not matter as much who it is atop the FCC.

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Google, the New King of Telecom Policy

November 7, 2008

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.

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Google and the FCC, BFF

November 6, 2008

Put aside all the technical stuff about white spaces technology, since it’s not going to help you get a faster broadband connection anytime soon. What was really amazing Thursday in San Jose was watching FCC chairman Kevin Martin and Google co-founder Larry Page hold court together, like two buds just hanging out talking tech and policy. It’s an incredible development for both the agency and the search giant company, showing how far both have progressed since Google started taking policy seriously just a short time ago.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin, left, and Google co-founder Larry Page.

Since there’s a bunch more panels going on here today, including a net neutrality discussion featuring three of our top 10 influencers in the debate, we’ll keep this one short. But it’s clear that the Googlers — who largely got their way in the white spaces decision — have learned quickly how to win friends and influence people in the D.C. policy game.

According to Page, it helps to have “a bunch of M.I.T. grads who breathe radio” to interface with the FCC’s engineering staff. And according to Martin, having Google bring its resources into the policy discussion lets the FCC make better technical decisions, “and that’s been to the benefit of the public interest,” Martin said.

We’ll leave deeper cynical observations about how it may also mean campaign contributions for a potential future political career until later. For now, we’re still in amazement that Google and the FCC are hanging out, talking about how wonderful it is that wireless networks will be more open and abundant. Change we can believe in, indeed.

(Photo: Paul Kapustka, (c) Sidecut Reports)