Ex-FCC chief Powell to head top cable trade group

Michael Powell, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was named Tuesday president and chief executive of the cable industry’s biggest trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Powell, son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, served as chairman of the FCC from January 2001 to January 2005 and was known as a stalwart of deregulation and for unraveling media ownership rules that would allow for greater concentration.

He steps into his role as head of the NCTA amid massive change in the cable and telecom industry as those firms shift more toward broadband Internet access. Internet video firms such as Netflix, Hulu and Apple TV, meanwhile, threaten their paid television services.

Powell will represent the cable industry’s regulatory issues before Congress and the FCC. He replaces Kyle McSlarrow, who was recently named president of Comcast’s Washington office.

“Michael’s exemplary record of leadership, deep commitment to public service, and vast insight into public policy make him an ideal fit to lead our industry in Washington, D.C., as we address the regulatory challenges that lie ahead and continue to help policy makers understand cable’s commitment to jobs, investment, and innovation,” said Patrick J. Esser, chairman of the NCTA Board of Directors and president of Cox Communications. 

Powell was first appointed as a commissioner to the FCC by President Bill Clinton in 1997. He was later named chairman by George W. Bush. NCTA would not comment on Powell’s compensation. Washingtonian Magazine listed his annual pay at $2.2 million.

In his tenure, Powell ruled that cable modem services should be separated from telecom services and be held to fewer rules. Cable companies do not abide by the same rules as phone companies, which are price-regulated.

That ruling has presented a challenge to the FCC, as Verizon Communications and Metro PCS file suit against the FCC for Internet access rules established in December. Those companies and others say the FCC overstepped its ability to regulate broadband Internet providers. A federal court ruled against the agency last spring, saying it also did not have the authority to sanction Comcast for violating no-blocking principles on Internet networks.

During Powell’s tenures, some commissioners and public interest groups pressed the agency to bring more Internet access to underserved populations. He was accused of downplaying the significance of the digital divide emerging as wealthier Americans began to access the Web while poorer communities were left behind.

"I think there's a Mercedes divide," Powell said in 2001. "I'd like to have one, but I can't afford one."

But Powell is perhaps best known for overseeing the FCC during high-profile cases of broadcast indecency, including Janet Jackson’s breast exposure during a Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.

Today, he touts the importance of broadband Internet.

“The broadband platform the industry has deployed is a critical part of the infrastructure needed to realize our national ambition to be a great nation in the Information Age,” Powell said in a statement Tuesday. “I am excited to help lead companies committed not only to their businesses, but to improving U.S. competitiveness and supporting invaluable programs in important areas such as education.”

Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.

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