So Did Anything Actually Happen In Telecom In 2009? And What That Means for 2010.

Ah, the inevitable end of the year summation post. This year certainly started with massive change of the relevant players in Congress, at the FCC, and in the Administration generally. It also began with some massive changes for me personally. Within the first month, Congress passed an economic stimulus bill that focused on the broader broadband ecology and explicitly required we shift from praying to the Gods of the Marketplace to trying to grapple with the very difficult challenge of developing a 21st Century information infrastructure.

So then what happened? More, including the inevitable overused sports metaphor, below . . . .

And then we waited. Inquiries started. Proceedings were begun. We filed comments, lots of comments, and we waited. Even continuing business from 2008 got delayed. Comcast’s challenge to the FCC’s Comcast/BitTorrent decision got briefed, but won’t get argued until January 8, 2010 and won’t get decided until late spring at the earliest. Bids to run the broadcast TV white spaces database won’t be filed until January 4, and final decisions on the database and the rules probably won’t occur until summer 2010 at the earliest. Heck, even the wireless mics in the 700 MHz band flap which was supposed to be resolved on an emergency expedited basis so that public safety and commercial wireless companies could build out as soon as analog shut off, won’t be decided until the January 2010 open meeting. Of course, since the DTV transition itself got extended from February to June, it wasn’t quite so pressing after all.

Now I’m not knocking the folks at the FCC or NTIA. If I’m blaming anyone, it’s Harry Reid for failing to move critical confirmations along, combined with how ridiculously long it now takes to “vet” nominees. We lost nearly half the year simply waiting for all the relevant agencies to get their leadership teams in place. Now add to that the fact that NTIA and FCC (and other federal agencies) were simultaneously required to engage in massive internal staffing and restructuring while also figuring out how to implement a 180 degree policy change in an “open and transparent” manner that was “fact based and data driven.”

So 2010 turns out to be the year we will find out whether “data driven” actually goes anywhere, and how far. Because one consequence of delay has been that the incumbents who began 2009 in a state of quaking panic at the prospect of radical change have had time to regroup and rediscover their political courage. Also concerning is all this idea that “politics is the art of the possible” which appears to have become the guiding mantra of the Obama folks and Democrats generally. While this makes a pleasant change in some ways from the Bush philosophy of “winning a national election by less than 2% gives us a total mandate to do whatever the heck we want and screw the rest of you you’ll do what we say and quit your bitchin’” (or, as Vice President Cheney explained it more succinctly to Senator Leahy, “go [fleeting expletive] yourself”) it is rather a far cry from “change we can believe in” or any other sort of change.

If I could convey one bit of wisdom to Democrats generally and to the folks at the FCC in particular, it would be this. “Politics may be the art of the possible. But leadership is getting people to do what they previously thought was impossible — in unison.” Not an easy task. But leadership, as opposed to simple management, is not easy.

Bottom line, despite lots of hope for new beginnings and dramatic change, 2009 turned out to be the prologue rather than the pivot. It remains far too early to write off the Obama telecom initiatives at the FCC, NTIA, RUS, and elsewhere as fizzles or failures — as too many disappointed progressives have been eager to do since the beginning. At the same time, a lot of momentum progressives had coming into this year has dissipated in terms of pushing for more radical change.

To overuse my favorite metaphor, I expect we will continue to grind out yardage, but we missed our opportunity to convert the opening kick off into a touchdown. So here we are at the beginning of of the second quarter, 1st and ten on the fifty. Time to see if we can finally run it to the end zone, end up settling for a field goal, or fumble it for a conversion.

Stay tuned . . .

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