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This has not been Kevin Martin's best week. Tuesday, by itself, could have been an entire week's worth of grief. The report issued by the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee basically accused Martin of trashing the Commission, and there were some brutally honest e-mails to supply some depth to the charges.
Of course, the Committee Republicans couldn't rouse themselves sufficiently to file a minority report defending Martin, although they tried to minimize the importance of it all through comments to reporters.
Perhaps that's because the Democratic report released on Tuesday (Dec. 9) was only the warm-up for the blind-side sacks that came the next two days. On Wednesday (Nov. 10), the Bush Administration, in the person of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez sent a letter to the FCC objecting to an item on the FCC agenda for the Dec. 18 meeting to award spectrum to M2Z for a free wireless broadband service. And then today, (Thursday, Dec. 10), the Wall Street Journal, normally the Administration's in-house editorial page, piled on with an editorial attacking Martin for granting "Political Favors at the FCC" on the same issue.
Some of the criticism is warranted, but much isn't. All this animosity, to say nothing of hostility, must be frustrating for Martin, because it was brought on when he was trying, in however flawed a way, to help consumers. Much of the grief he took over his running of the Commission was as a result of his attempt to lower cable rates. It's true that some of the actions could also be attributed to a policy agenda that has largely favored phone companies while smacking cable. If Martin could have lowered cable rates, then good for him. There are simply better ways to go about doing it.
In the wireless issue, Martin is trying to help create some competition for the behemoths which already dominate the cellular markets -- Verizon and AT&T. Granted, it would be a modest competition, but it's something. In this case, the start-up M2Z wants to provide a free service of modest speeds, piggybacked onto a pay service, complete with content filtering for parents.
We certainly have some disagreement with the chairman over this issue, in particular over the content filtering, which Public Knowledge, Free Press, Consumers Union and Media Access Project, all oppose. We've said that since March, 2007, and did again today:
"We appreciate the potential of a new service that could provide a genuine alternative to the current wireline cable modem/DSL duopoly, to apply pressure on cable and telecom providers to enhance their service and speed offerings, to promote unrestricted networks for the full range of contents, applications, and innovations, as well as to make the concept of opportunistic sharing with unlicensed devices a real and viable option going forward."
We also don't think that the spectrum has sufficient conditions for a truly open network for services and equipment. We also recognize there could be some absolutely mesmerizing in-depth technical discussions of interference which can make for a simply fascinating dialog.
At heart, Martin's goal here, as it was a few months back with the ill-fated Frontline proposal, was to try to figure out a way to bring broadband to more people. That's a worthy goal, and one that a clean, simple spectrum auction won't accomplish if AT&T and Verizon are once again allowed to buy up most of the spectrum.
That kind of thinking is anathema to the Bush Administration. Gutierrez complained:
"In particular, one mandate would require that the licensee provide free broadband services at government-mandated speeds. This mandate would likely lead to congested and inefficiently used broadband, and it would be inconsistent with the Administration's view that spectrum should be allocated by markets rather than governments."
Heaven forbid there should be a free service that could benefit minorities or rural residents who are the most disadvantaged when it comes to receiving broadband service. Could there be a case in which markets don't work as they should? Perhaps by reading the newspaper we could find one.
The Journal's editorial was about chasing evil villains out to corrupt the system. In this case, said evil-doer is the venture capitalist John Doerr who, if you think about it, is the type of person the Journal should admire. He made a lot of money the old-fashioned way, through capitalism. In this instance, the Journal sees Doerr as trying again for a "sweetheart deal" that Martin is willing to give him, just as Doerr apparently finagled an inside arrangement for himself in the Frontline matter.
The Journal sees insidious Democratic influence, ignoring for the moment the role in Frontline of stalwart Republican Janice Obuchowski, while ignoring the other conditions that brought down Frontline, principally a greedy public-safety sector. The Journal sees the M2Z issue as one simply of money - Martin, also a stalwart Republican, for some reason wanting to do favors for Democratic contributor Doerr and his start-ups at the expense of "larger, established wireless carriers" which, the Journal neglects to say, are of course headed by Republicans. Their vision of the mythical influence of Silicon Valley is as flaws as their view of the mythical "highly competitive" telecom market.
There's no room for innovation in the Journal's world, it's just "show me the money" from the auction, if the money is paid by big companies rather than start-ups. "The FCC's job isn't to favor the politically connected," the Journal huffed. True story. It would be nice if their outrage had been directed at those who are really politically connected at the FCC, and nine times out of 10, it's not start-ups. It's the telephone companies and the big media companies that usually get their way. It would be nice if the Journal editorial page looked into that some time, and quit beating on Martin when he tries to do something in the public interest.
Oh well, after a few weeks, neither Gutierrez nor the Journal will have Kevin Martin to kick around any more.