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Martin appointment could stall BPL
By Glenn Bischoff
March 18, 2005

President Bush's appointment of Kevin Martin to succeed Michael Powell as FCC chairman should come as no surprise. Martin is well regarded within the Republican Party, worked on the president's first-term campaign and his wife once worked for Vice President Dick Cheney, according to sources.

Martin proved to be an intelligent, thoughtful and capable commissioner who wasn't afraid to buck Powell when he thought it right and necessary. Martin outmaneuvered Powell a couple of years ago during an FCC proceeding concerning wireline telephone rules and prevailed when the commission drafted an order that reflected Martin's, not Powell's, perspective.

Just because a federal appeals court later vindicated Powell and overturned the order shouldn't diminish Martin's actions. It took a good bit of, ahem, fortitude to stand up to Powell, who has his own well-developed power base in Washington and within the GOP.

That Martin stood up to Powell when it would have been far easier -- and much more politically expedient -- to toe the party line speaks well of his character and his ability to lead the commission.

However, one thing that Martin is not is Powell. Consequently, Martin's ascension to the FCC's helm ultimately could have a negative effect on the nascent broadband-over-power lines technology.

Powell was an unabashed cheerleader for BPL, which he saw as the panacea for bringing high-speed data services to underserved areas, particularly rural areas, where infrastructure costs are so high that cable companies and wireline telephone companies can't justify the deployments. His enthusiasm for BPL largely drove public utilities -- ultra-conservative organizations by nature -- to take the leap, according to Nancy Kaplan, vice president of Adventis, a consultancy headquartered in Boston.

"Powell was remarkably supportive [of BPL]," Kaplan said. "Having that support made all the difference in terms of the utilities being willing to go after this. ... They got burned by telecom in the past, so feeling that they really had somebody who was going to support them from a regulatory standpoint and make it easy for them actually has made BPL move more quickly than it might have otherwise."

Kaplan predicted that Martin will support BPL, but won't share Powell's zeal. Without such a champion going forward, BPL could fall well short of Powell's vision -- some would say dream -- for the still-developing technology.

"BPL could end up being a small alternative that is used for a few things," Kaplan said. "It has some value for the utilities themselves for their internal operations. I think it will move in that direction rather than becoming a large consumer option."

Such an outcome would thrill the nation's amateur radio operators, who are gravely concerned that radiation leakage stemming from BPL will cause harmful interference to their operations and are quite angry with Powell for not giving those concerns greater heed. When the FCC approved rules in November 2004 that cleared the way for widespread deployment of the technology, which uses the nation's power grid to deliver broadband services. Powell said those concerns weren't enough to justify putting the brakes on BPL and that the commission's rules provided adequate protection for the hams.

"The potential for the American economy is too great -- is too potentially groundbreaking -- to sit idly by and allow any claim or any possible speculative fear to keep us from trying to drive this technology and drive America into the broadband future," Powell said at the time.

I don't know enough about BPL to be able to comment on whether the potential interference problems will simply go away should utilities limit their use of the technology for applications such as remote monitoring of meters. But I do know something about Martin, having covered him and interviewed him on numerous occasions over the past four years.

Though a Republican, Martin has demonstrated he is less interested in doing what's good for big business -- and public utilities certainly qualify -- than he is in doing what's in the public's best interest. Martin did just that in the wireline telephone debate, when he sided with competitive carriers against the incumbents, led by the gargantuan former Bell companies Verizon, SBC and BellSouth. Consequently, both the FCC and the utilities might be rethinking their BPL strategies at some point during Martin's tenure.


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