The FCC's challenge


THESE DAYS, a growing array of players are offering broadband - cable TV, satellite TV, utility, and landline and wireless phone companies - and increasingly that's a vehicle for offering phone services and entertainment. In the not-too-distant future, the Internet, phone service and TV may all converge right in your family room via some sort of multifunction appliances.

What a marvelous technological vision. What lovely competition. What a rapidly changing regulatory thicket awaits the next head of the Federal Communications Commission.

Few outside Washington used to pay much attention to the FCC. But that changed over the last four years under Chairman Michael K. Powell, who is leaving in March. His aggressive stances - against indecency and often for deregulation and business interests - put the agency firmly in the limelight.

Mr. Powell's record was mixed. The FCC's pressures on indecency - though occasionally warranted - were much too often driven by politics. Mr. Powell's effort to loosen media ownership restrictions - which would have benefited the owner of this newspaper, the Tribune Co. - was rejected in court. The 1996 act deregulating phones has failed to bring local-service competition; former regional Bells may now be reconsolidating. But Mr. Powell was very right to protect the emergence of new digital technologies - such as VoIP, or Internet telephony - that have begun to sweepingly change the telecommunications landscape.

That will be his successor's greatest challenge: evolving a 21st-century regulatory structure to keep up with technological innovation and altering competitive rules no longer reflecting marketplace realities - while ensuring critical public interests. The impact will be as concrete as whether all phones have 911 access and as vast as whether the economic benefits of broadband spread fast enough.

The issues before the FCC are dauntingly complex, and they are likely to become even more so. But there is too much at stake - for the public and for telecommunications and media companies - for them to fade from center stage. The FCC continues to require a leader with Mr. Powell's appreciation for the many ways in which new technologies challenge old structures. But it also needs a chairman with a much more deft political touch - a consensus-builder - so the agency can more effectively manage this emerging digital world without the distractions of partisan politics.

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