Powerful names, new voices at the FCC


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Clyburn, who was appointed to the FCC last year, says she learned everything she knows about politics from her father.Mignon Clyburn

But when the time came for her first big decision in Washington, she found herself at odds with the man whose political wisdom she calls “a blessing.”
 
The FCC last fall was preparing to vote on controversial net neutrality rules intended to prevent Internet service providers from giving preferential treatment to some types of traffic. The younger Clyburn supported them, as did FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and President Barack Obama. The older Clyburn opposed them, as did the two Republicans on the commission and companies such as AT&T and Comcast.
 
To opponents, Clyburn represented the decisive vote. Her background in utilities, rather than telecommunications; ties to South Carolina, which historically has been AT&T territory; and her father’s public support for AT&T’s position against net neutrality made many hopeful that she could be convinced to change her mind.
 
It was a rude awakening for Clyburn, who was inundated with letters from minority groups and organizations from South Carolina. She nonetheless voted in favor of net neutrality rules, calling the lobbying tactics “radioactive.”
 
“You adapt to the town,” she said of the incident. “But I’m not going to adopt all the things I see.”
 
Her father said he never even knew where she stood on net neutrality until the day of the vote.
 
“Everyone just assumed that was her position,” Rep. Clyburn said in an interview this month. “So she was catching all kinds of hell … But she’s never followed my advice on stuff. She’s always been very independent.”
 
The younger Clyburn has made a point to champion consumer issues and minority-owned media in her first year on the panel. On the national broadband plan, which is due to Congress in March, she wants to help low-income, minority and rural communities get the computers and training they need to adopt broadband.
 
Before she was appointed to the FCC, Clyburn had never been away from Charleston, S.C., for more than two weeks. She began her career running a weekly newspaper focused on African-American issues with her father, although he says she did all the work.
 
She then served for 11 years on South Carolina’s Public Service Commission, the state’s utilities regulator. At the federal level, she became involved in the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which pushed for her nomination to the FCC when an appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did not pan out.
 
“My road here is in some ways unconventional,” she said in an interview. “I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a machine of Washington. I am outside the Beltway.”
 
And she’s made it clear that she won’t serve as a gateway to her father, and vice versa.
 
“People recognize the last name and that gets attention,” she said. “But he will tell you, ‘You’d better talk to her.’ ”
 

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Meredith Attwell BakerUnlike Clyburn, Baker was a familiar fixture in telecommunications policy before she arrived at the FCC last year.
 
Baker also brings an engineer-like knowledge of the airwaves to the FCC, something the other commissioners rely on as they consider the high-stakes tug-of-war between wireless carriers and broadcasters.
 
Baker strongly objects to government stepping in with net neutrality rules, saying they would stifle economic growth.
 
“I realize we lost the election and we’re going to have rules,” she said. “But it’s important that we get the technical aspects right. We have to make sure what we do doesn’t damage the innovation and competition we have now.”
 
Baker had made a name for herself in Washington by the time she married the son of James Baker. The Attwells and Bakers were family friends in Houston, which is how she met her husband, Jamie Baker.
 
After several lobbying jobs, she became Acting Assistant Secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an arm of the Commerce Department, during the George W. Bush administration. She was the point-person for managing the government’s spectrum licenses and oversaw the Internet’s domain name system.
 
But it was the digital television transition that thrust her into the national spotlight.
 
Baker was in charge of a $1.5 billion program to provide coupons to consumers to use toward purchasing converter boxes, so their old analog TV sets would work when stations switched to digital programming.
 
The program ended up being under-funded, and fears grew in Congress that there would not be enough coupons to go around. Many criticized Baker. After weeks of consternation, Obama urged Congress to delay the transition by six months.
 
That outraged some Republicans. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) recommended Baker when Obama asked for Republican nominations to the FCC.
 
Baker said that period of tense hearings and consumer groups’ complaints over the digital television transition made her a stronger policymaker. Her top goal is to help the FCC come up with a strategic plan to outline the nation’s needs for airwaves over the next decade. Genachowski says the country will soon face a dire shortage of airwaves.
 
The FCC may take airwaves away from broadcasters and government agencies to meet the demand for new wireless broadband services, which has sparked a heated lobbying battle.
 
She earned the trust of the broadcasting industry during the digital television transition.
 
“Congress owes her a debt of gratitude for her work in shepherding through a successful transition,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
 
When asked about her future political aspirations, Baker said she never expected to end up at the FCC. And she doesn’t know where she’ll end up next.
 
“I’ve learned to just wait and see,” she said.