FCC Chairman's Information Vision : Reed Hundt Says He Wants Technology Accessible to All

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reed E. Hundt, the sober chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, fielded the celebrity's question in an office full of schoolchildren.

"So what do I call you?" asked Bill Nye, who appears on the popular TV series "Disney Presents Bill Nye the Science Guy." "Mr. Hundt? Mr. Chairman? Mr. Muckity Muck?"

"I suppose you can call me Chairman Muckity Muck," Hundt said.

Hundt was joking, but in fact his status in Washington these days is about as exalted as it can get. The politically connected 46-year-old lawyer has emerged as the most visible and controversial FCC chairman since Newton Minow riveted the industry by declaring TV "a vast wasteland."

A close friend and former schoolmate of Vice President Al Gore who also attended Yale Law School with President Clinton, Hundt heads an agency of 1,800 employees that is in the midst of redefining how the $300-billion a year telecommunications industry will expand to serve business and consumers with ground-breaking new technologies, such as high-definition television, wireless communications services and digital radio.

"We intend to give (consumers a) choice in communications and we intend to create opportunities for everybody to participate" in the Information Age, said Hundt, who briefly practiced law in Southern California. "There's never been a time in this country when the communications and information sector has been so important."

Hundt's profile is likely to rise further despite the beginning of confirmation hearings today on two new FCC appointees. Washington banking executive Susan Paula Ness and San Francisco communications attorney Rachelle Chong are said to generally share Hundt's views about promoting competition. And lawmakers continue to work on legislation aimed at giving the FCC greater authority to spur competition in the telecommunications industry.

"This year, the FCC will have the opportunity to implement a new vision of telecommunications competition that is moving through Congress," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. "The soul of telecommunications regulation is competition, and no one appreciates this more than . . . Reed Hundt."

Despite all this, Hundt's first major initiative in office--an order trimming monthly cable TV fees by 7%--drew widespread criticism that such a ruling would thwart rather than help the development of any future information highway. Following the rate cut, the proposed $33-billion acquisition of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. by Bell Atlantic Corp. collapsed, and Southwestern Bell Corp. called off its $4.9-billion joint venture with the Atlanta cable concern Cox Enterprises Inc.

More recently, Hundt moved to rekindle industry debate over wireless personal communications services--an issue many thought the FCC had resolved months ago. Hundt's support of a series of FCC meetings to debate PCS has fueled worries that further delays in deploying the technology may dim its prospects by giving an insurmountable advantage to entrenched providers such as cellular companies.

Despite the controversy, Hundt defies easy pigeonholing as a regulator. The man himself says he is in favor of deregulation and is "loath to put restrictions on the way anyone would use our (communications) networks."

Yet he also says he would consider extending the FCC's regulatory reach if such intervention would increase user access or improve a communication network's technical operation.

"Anywhere we see--in communications--a bottleneck monopoly, we are going to contribute our view, which is that it ought to be broken up," Hundt said. "I don't see one right now in" computers, he said, to cite one example. "But if there is one, we'll offer our two cents."

Yet some who eagerly sought out Hundt's "two cents" in the past have turned cool.

Broadcasters say they were slighted in March after Hundt decided not to put in an appearance at their annual convention in order to attend a gathering of the International Telecommunications Union in Buenos Aires. Amid the grumbling, a broadcasting trade magazine portrayed Hundt on its cover in a kingly purple robe, hovering above a caption that said the FCC chairman's "independent regulatory style keeps him above it all."

"It's bewildering to me how a commission that preaches growth of new technologies--creation of jobs, the rebuilding of our international competitiveness and the re-engineering of government bureaucracy to make it more efficient--can . . . negate all these goals," Gerald Levin, chairman of cable entertainment conglomerate Time Warner Inc., told an industry gathering last month in New York.

James H. Quello, an FCC commissioner, said Hundt "shows me personal friendship and deference and he has all the right answers. . . . He just needs to get a little more familiar with how the process works around here and get everyone in the loop a little earlier."

The criticism seems curious for a man who has met with scores of industry representatives, made nearly 20 public appearances and even hosted an elaborate 80th birthday party for Quello last month in an effort to build bridges. The criticism also seems at odds with the success Hundt has enjoyed in pursuing his administrative agenda.

In the seven meetings the agency has held since Hundt took office in December, for example, commissioners have approved 45 FCC initiatives--all but three unanimously.

Some say that no matter how hard Hundt tries, it may be difficult to recast his public image at a federal agency that has a long history of political infighting.

"People criticize every new chairman, but I've had no problem" with Hundt, said Andrew Barrett, a Republican lawyer who was appointed to the FCC in 1989. "I think the complaints about Reed stem from the fact that he has not allowed himself to be used" by industry lobbyists, Barrett said.

"Nobody likes to be criticized personally," Hundt said. "But I'm pretty confident that we are very seriously considering all the industry views and making very rational decisions."

Bio: Reed Eric Hundt

* Born: March 3, 1948

* Hometown: Ann Arbor, Mich.

* Education: St. Albans School for Boys (class of 1965); Yale College (1969); Yale Law School (1974)

* Career highlights: Partner in the Washington office of the Los Angeles-based Latham & Watkins law firm; senior adviser and member of the Economic Council for the Presidential Transition Team; law clerk to the late Chief Judge Harrison L. Winter of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

* Family: Married to Elizabeth Katz, a psychologist in private practice. Three children: Adam, Nathaniel and Sara.

* Quote: "We have a lot of potential to help the economy and to help working men and women by making the right decisions" for the telecommunications industry. "The way to make the right decisions is to introduce choice everywhere we can. But if we make decisions that are less than right, we can seriously frustrate the aspirations of all Americans."

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