FCC’s New Top Gun

William Kennard takes helm as first black chairperson at the FCC

William E. Kennard formerly the feds’ top legal gun in regulating the telecommunications industry, was recently confirmed and sworn in as the first African American chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

As the FCC’s general counsel, Kennard compiled an impressive record against volatile telecommunications interests, and in the last three years improved the agency’s win record in the U.S. Court of Appeals from 55% to 85%. The FCC has a huge responsibility in regulating the multibillion dollar telecommunications industry, with issues ranging from the sale of various broadcast outlets to the proliferation of local telephone services. When President Clinton picked Kennard, a 40-year-old, Yale-trained lawyer with strong minority business credentials, to lead the five-member panel, many industry observers thought he was the ideal choice to succeed FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.

Yet despite being a strong advocate for increasing minority ownership of radio and television stations, the Congressional Black Caucus and Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-South Carolina) initially opposed Kennard’s selection in favor of Hollings’ former aide, Ralph Everett, who is also black.

“It wasn’t a matter of that we were against Kennard,” says CBC Chair Maxine Waters (D-California). “Mr. Everett was better known to some of the CBC members, and it was a situation where we had two outstanding candidates for the position.”

But during the confirmation hearings before the Senate Commerce Committee, Kennard impressed Hollings and other senators who were mostly interested in cable rates and whether the FCC was going to allow local telephone bills to go up. “You’re more than qualified,” Hollings told Kennard. “You’ve been advising the entire commission for four years. The challenge is to get the entire commission working together.”

During the hearings, Kennard said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 correctly dismantled communications monopolies and sparked needed competition, which is better for the consumer. As FCC chair, he said he must be guided by three overlapping principles, “Competition, community and common sense.” He added, “Whether you live in a metropolitan area, rural town or in an inner city, you should have the same benefits from the opportunities the FCC can provide.”

Rep. Ed Towns (D-New York) says he hopes Kennard will create a climate at the FCC that will foster real competition among small entrepreneurs. “He needs to have the flexibility to fund the great ideas,” says Towns. “That’s the only way to create real competition in the telecommunications industry.”

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