William E. Kennard was nominated by President Clinton in August 1997 to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Sworn in Nov. 7, 1997, his term expires June 30, 2001. Kennard, a Los Angeles native and Phi Beta Kappa Stanford grad, received his law degree from Yale in 1981, was a practicing attorney in a broad range of communications issues, and served 3 1/2 years as general counsel to the FCC before his confirmation. Just a year into his term and poised at the edge of the millennium, Kennard has not only already made his mark as the first African American to head the independent government agency, but is overseeing the most historic changes ever in the telecommunications cosmos, following the big bang of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, now being implemented by the FCC, with policies affecting interstate and international radio, television, wire, satellite and cable, and now, the Internet. Now, at the outset of the Information Revolution, communications and information industries represent the fastest growing sectors of the economy, and involved more than $800 billion in 1997. And on the state and local level, battles continue to rage in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, with those billions of dollars at stake.
As various technologies converge, there are some that have gone so far as to call for the abolition of the FCC. Kennard rejects that notion, citing the need for FCC regulation to assure equality of access as a fundamental right of all Americans. And in the race for bandwidth, Kennard offers his vision for what could lie ahead in the very near future, if the telecom giants are willing to abandon some of their gold and join the FCC to give the telecosm a brave new whirl.
Q: Until 1996, the telecosm has been governed largely by laws half a century old and telephone industry rules dating back to 1887. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is perhaps the most important piece of economic legislation of the 20th century. Describe this historic legislation and some of its ramifications from your vantage point in the middle of it all.
A: When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, we all thought we were setting the stage for competition in the local market for plain old telephone service over the old public switched telephone network. The principle debate about the telecom act was about how to promote competition on the analog telephone network -- local and long distance. Cable, long-distance and local telephone companies all said that they were going to enter each other's businesses. Entry turned out to be harder and more costly than expected.
But the rise of the Internet has changed business plans again. Companies can now compete to sell high-speed Internet access. At the same time, all communications products are becoming digital bits. Whether audio, video, voice or Internet data, they are all computer codes -- ones and zeros. This brings down the cost of competition. Internet and digital technology have the potential to renew the promise of the telecom act. Circuit switches are giving way to packet switches. Instead of keeping an entire circuit open and dedicated to a single conversation for the length of the phone call, packet switching breaks the spoken words into tiny data packets that are disassembled, then transmitted separately over the most efficient routes possible and then reassembled at the other end of the call in microseconds. The same technique can be used to handle other types of traffic, such as data, image, and even video.
It is an amazing technological advance that greatly expands the capacity and functionality of the network. It's no coincidence that while the market for voice services is growing at around 5 percent annually, the packet-switched data business is growing at an annual clip of 300 percent. Amazing.
Q: What does this mean for the average American sitting at home? With all the hype, today's Internet is often much too slow for