McDowell A La Mode

At his first press conference since becoming an FCC commissioner 69 days prior, Robert McDowell emphasized his free-market principles, shared his thoughts on FCC authority and revealed the contents of his barn.

McDowell said his general philosophy was to trust free markets and free people. He said that only in the event of market failure should the government act. He then opened up the floor to what he referred to as "Q & D," or "questions and dodging." Reporters proceeded to pepper the greenhorn regulator with queries about how he reconciled his free-market principles with the FCC's recent unprecedented action pressuring Comcast to carry Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

Carriage deals are archetypal of free marketry, with networks angling for hefty subscriber fees and cable operators countering. Sports nets in general command the highest fees and are blamed by cable operators for escalating retail prices. Unable to reach a deal with Comcast, MASN filed a complaint with the FCC, which agreed to review it in a hearing. MASN coincidentally carries Nationals baseball games, while Comcast coincidentally serves the Washington, D.C. area. A deal was reached before the hearing was held.

Parrying the assertion that the FCC forced the deal, McDowell (a Cox subscriber), observed that it was resolved in a private setting, and merely facilitated by the FCC.

His free marketism was more clear-cut with regard to network neutrality, the sticking point of telecom reform legislation on Capitol Hill. McDowell said people would break out pitchforks and torches if they couldn't access Google. He later disclosed that there was indeed, a pitchfork available in his Northern Virginia barn for such protests, but that no, a mini French Revolution would not be the bar by which regulatory intervention should be measured.

Should Congress fail to unstick the telecom bill with its video franchise reforms, McDowell said he felt the FCC does have some authority to ease the regulatory burden, should that be necessary. The idea is to streamline the process for new entrants without alienating local governments, so someone in Wyoming with a downed cable coax in the backyard doesn't have to call Washington to get it fixed.

A phone guy by trade whose confirmation established the first Republican majority on the commission since Kevin Martin took over as chairman last year, McDowell established his ipseity by not toeing Martin's line on multicast must-carry. McDowell said expanded must-carry was something for Congress to contemplate.

"If Congress gave that mandate, I would follow it," he said.

He said his priorities as a commissioner were media ownership and the Universal Service Fund. He said he'd like to see USF spending, as well as fraud and abuse, reined in; the contribution base expanded, and rates lowered overall. He favors tackling media ownership peacemal, something FCC Chairman Kevin Martin contemplated last year, but has more recently rethought.

On the subject of unlicensed devices and their potential effect on DTV, McDowell said he was optimistic that compression technologies would mitigate the ill effects of the continued crowding of the radio frequency spectrum. For broadcast in general, he said it had a strong future, and that the business model will sort itself out. Ditto on a la carte cable pricing.

"Consumer demand may resolve that question," he said.