- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

As more people become dependent on e-mail, cell phones and other such devices, the importance of having the right leadership at the Federal Communications Commission becomes increasingly critical.

At the start of his first administration, President Bush tapped forward-looking Michael Powell to head the agency. He’s the deregulator that the left — especially self-appointed “consumer advocates” — loves to hate.

Howard Stern is among the outgoing chairman’s loudest critics. The radio shock jock has been celebrating Mr. Powell’s departure, claiming that he has led a dangerously puritanical crusade against indecency on television and radio. Media pundits thoughtlessly regurgitate the Stern line, pointing to incidents such as the FCC’s $550,000 fine against CBS for nudity at last year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

Reality isn’t so black and white, as Mr. Powell actually held the middle-ground position on this issue. For just about every indecency ruling, Democrat Commissioner Michael Copps and Republican Commissioner Kevin Martin joined to issue statements complaining Mr. Powell did not go far enough. The two also would extend indecency regulations to subscription media such as cable and satellite. We suspect Mr. Stern may one day hope for Chairman Powell’s return.

George Soros-funded groups, such as Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America, claim that Mr. Powell has been bad for “competition” and consumers. This betrays their big-government bias, which holds that consumers only benefit when competition is managed or subsidized by the government. These groups rejoiced in 2003, when Mr. Martin joined Democratic commissioners in ruling that regional phone companies like Verizon must allow long-distance companies like AT&T; to resell local phone service at below-market rates. Consumers then could select a phone service at a government-imposed discount.

Mr. Powell argued that this was socialism, not real competition, and that true consumer benefit is driven by new technology. Cell phones, for example, are becoming an attractive alternative to traditional landline phone service. Internet voice service, which Mr. Powell successfully fought to keep free of government taxes and red tape, offers unlimited local and long-distance calling for as little as $20 a month. Although that price is already far below anything subsidies could achieve, it will continue to fall as new entrants enter the market.

Mr. Powell’s view was vindicated last year, when an appeals court threw out the backward ruling by Mr. Martin and the Democrats. This put the industry on the right track for the future. We are troubled, however, that Mr. Martin is frequently mentioned as a potential successor to the visionary Mr. Powell. With Internet services still in their infancy, the last thing the FCC needs at the helm is an old-style regulator tied to outdated business models.

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