Obama or AT&T — The Choice for Commissioner-Designate Clyburn as the Whitacre Era Ends
Obama or AT&T — The Choice for Commissioner-Designate Clyburn as the Whitacre Era Ends
Obama or AT&T — The Choice for Commissioner-Designate Clyburn as the Whitacre Era Ends

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    House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) may not have done his daughter, Mignon, any favors by getting her appointed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

    Mignon Clyburn has served on the South Carolina Public Service Commission since 1998. When confirmed, she would join Julius Genachowski, the Administration’s stalled nominee for chairman, and a Republican to be named later as the core of a future FCC.

    Mignon Clyburn will come into office faced with a very delicate political balancing act, which she no doubt recognizes from growing up in a political family. Her father is the House Majority Whip, the third-ranking position in the leadership; he is the highest-ranking African American.

    Over the past 10 years, as a member of the PSC, Clyburn has gone along with the normal pro-Bell tilt to the Commission. As one telecom attorney with experience in southern state put it, if a competitive carrier went to the South Carolina commission to argue that the sky was blue, and AT&T (the former BellSouth) argued the sky was purple, the PSC would rule in favor of purple. The Bell companies have an unrivalled story of success in the South Carolina regulatory system and legislature, as they do in many southern states. For example, in 1997, the year before Clyburn joined the Commission, the PSC approved BellSouth’s application to provide long-distance service within the state. The Justice Department and FCC each rejected it. BellSouth tried again in the friendlier atmosphere of 2002, again supported by the state, and this time was approved.

    AT&T is a politically potent force, as Mignon Clyburn and her father well know, and there will doubtless be pressure on her to follow the policies that veteran telecom attorneys from the region acknowledge she has long supported. Those philosophies, however, will come into sharp contrast with the expected progressive policies espoused by the President Obama’s campaign, many of which were drafted by Genachowski and supported in the $787 billion stimulus law which requires open networks and non-discrimination policies in broadband networks built with stimulus funds. It will be an interesting exercise in political realpolitik.

    Similarly, AT&T was forced to acknowledge some realism of its own. Earlier in the day, before Clyburn’s appointment was made public, an AT&T era ended at the Media Access Project’s (MAP) April 29 forum on Mapping Change. Thank goodness.

    Call it the end of the “Ed Whitacre Era” (despite the ascension of Randall Stephenson as chairman in 2007, succeeding Whitacre.) In 2005, after the FCC approved SBC’s takeover of AT&T, the then-chairman of reconstituted AT&T, the aforementioned Mr. Whitacre, accused large Web companies of being freeloaders: “They don't have any fiber out there. They don't have any wires. They don't have anything,” he argues. “They use my lines for free — and that's bull. For a Google or a Yahoo! or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!”

    That notion has echoed through the industry, Congress and regulatory world ever since. Rural telephone companies railed against Google as the source of traffic on their networks that was raising costs. Congressional lackeys of the telecom industry railed at large Web companies, particularly Google in more recent months) as freeloaders as part of the diversionary tactics to pull attention away from the activities of AT&T or Verizon (depending on the issue). The same idea percolated through the FCC.

    The idea that Google, or any Web company, was using anything for free, was of course laughable. Big Web companies pay millions of dollars for access on their end, to connect to the Internet. Customers of telecom customers generate their own requests and data, whether for search or video such as YouTube.

    Now Robert W. Quinn, Jr., AT&T senior vice president – Federal Regulatory, finally, put the Google-as-freeloaded meme to rest. At the MAP event, Quinn was seated on a panel next to Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington telecommunications counsel. Quinn was asked (full disclosure: I asked the question) whether Google was using his lines for free. He turned to Whitt, to ask whether AT&T was using lines for free. Whitt allowed that Google was paying lots of money to connect to the Internet. Asked as a follow up whether Google was using AT&T’s lines for free, Quinn put the canard out of its misery by conceding that Google was not using the network for free.

    Hallelujah! Let the angels sing and huzzahs be heard throughout the land. AT&T has recognized reality, at least in this instance. Quinn’s admission should shut down the absurd freeloader argument once and for all. Let the rural companies which want Google to shovel money their way and the Congressional lackeys doing AT&T’s bidding find some other bogus arguments.

    Let Mignon Clyburn take note.