The big news in Telecom Land is that Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker has decided to leave the Federal Communications Commission to become the head of Comcast/NBC Universal’s Washington, D.C., lobbying office.
This came as a big surprise to FCC-watchers. And for about 15 minutes it was something of a national story—even showing up on Gawker on Wednesday night. This is because Baker voted four months ago to approve Comcast’s acquisition of NBC.
It’s not surprising that the revolving door issue is getting all the attention. But that is likely to pass soon. (And, for what it’s worth, the reporting has been mostly overblown in suggesting that a move along these lines is unusual for senior officials at agencies like the FCC. There is still the question of whether—paraphrasing Michael Kinsley—that is the real problem.)
But there is something pretty newsworthy in all this, at least if you consider spectrum policy newsworthy.
As an FCC commissioner—and, before that, as the acting head of the federal agency (NTIA) that governs the federal government’s use of vast swaths of spectrum—Baker was a forceful advocate for increasing the amount of spectrum available for modern technologies such as iPhones.
Of particular importance, Baker was more encouraging about the idea of “spectrum incentive auctions” than just about anyone. This is a proposal to reallocate valuable spectrum away from legacy technologies like television broadcasting and towards more modern technologies like mobile broadband. (Full disclosure: Until last summer, I was a senior adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, where I was involved in developing the “spectrum incentive auction” proposal.)
But now Baker is the lead policy officer for a legacy broadcaster.
So the key question is: Will she change her own views on the issue—or will she find a way to, internally, change her new employer’s?
The easy answer is that, of course, she will take on the views of her employer. But it is actually not as simple as that.
Yes, the trade association for broadcasters—the NAB—has been vocally and publicly critical of the plan. But, like a blocking linebacker, one role of a good trade association is to take more extreme positions than its members, who can then negotiate for moderation.
Plus, the NAB is particularly sensitive to the needs of small broadcasters and local affiliates that have different incentives than the big broadcasters (who own some stations, typically in larger markets, but mainly produce programming).
The national broadcast chains have been somewhat reticent in taking strong views for or against spectrum incentive auctions. This reticence—given the context—has generally been read as disapproval rather than approval.
But there is still plenty of room, even at this late date, for NBC to come out in favor of spectrum incentive auctions.
That would still count as a surprising outcome. But the hiring of Meredith Baker is a signal that it is not an impossible one.
Bruce Gottlieb is the general counsel of National Journal parent company Atlantic Media Co. Until last summer, he was chief counsel and senior policy adviser to the current chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, and before that he was an adviser to Commissioner Michael J. Copps.
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