- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

Accepting his new post as Federal Communications Commission chairman on Wednesday, Kevin Martin said, “I look forward to continuing [outgoing Chairman Michael Powell’s] efforts in bringing the communications industry into the 21st century.” It was an obligatory thing to say at an acceptance speech, but we’re going to hold Mr. Martin to his words.

Mr. Powell is leaving the spot he held for four years as a true champion of deregulation and free markets. His successor can only hope to match Mr. Powell’s achievements, especially since the two Republicans butted heads over key issues.

What’s encouraging is that the White House appears genuinely committed to unfettering the telecommunications industry from outdated rules and regulations. Despite Mr. Martin’s occasional waywardness, it’s unlikely that the president would have appointed someone who did not share Mr. Powell’s free-market vision. Steering the FCC is an onerous responsibility, one that requires as much skill as it does patience. Mr. Powell was often criticized for his stubbornness on certain issues. Whatever the legitimacy of such claims, supporters of Mr. Martin say that above all he’s a consensus-builder. While possessing tact for purposes of political expediency is important, so too is the whole “vision thing,” as former President George H.W. Bush famously phrased it.

As was not predicted by the government 10 years ago, telecommunications has become the most important industry for the new century. Rarely has one industry seen such phenomenal growth in so short a time. But the inventor of this industry, the United States, is lagging compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Supporters of deregulation often note with concern that the United States now stands in 13th place in terms of broadband access. Messy and conflicting regulations of the 1996 Telecommunications Act are only making matters worse. The key here is to get the federal government out of the way. Allow it to breathe and the U.S. industry will quickly rise to the top.

To that end, the FCC plays a central role. Heading the agenda for the new term are overhauls of the access and universal service fees — both of which stand in the way of expanding broadband access by propping up rural phone companies. Mr. Martin will have to choose between his rural interests and his predecessor’s vision. As his acceptance remarks indicate, Mr. Martin says he will choose the latter. Let’s hope so.

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