March 8, 2005 11:07 AM PST

Powell makes final VoIP call

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell did some legacy building here Tuesday during a "swan song" in which he bid adieu to the Internet telephone industry that was fostered by his hands-off regulatory style.

"We gave them something to talk about," Powell told an audience of thousands attending the Spring 2005 Voice on the Net conference.


It was clear Tuesday that Powell wants his legacy to include voice over Internet Protocol, software that lets an Internet connection serve as a telephone line. VoIP calls are free if exclusively on the Internet, as in PC to PC or, increasingly, from cell phone to cell phone. It typically costs $20 to $30 a month for unlimited North American calls to cell and landline phones. The costs are low because, though completing a call to a traditional phone line costs the VoIP provider a little, the call itself and most of its journey--via the Internet--are unregulated.

During his tenure, Powell consistently advocated a free-market approach to VoIP specifically and to broadband in general, which often put him at odds with the two Democratic commissioners and sometimes Kevin Martin, a fellow Republican. Powell argued for greater competition between cable and DSL rather than continuing predecessor William Kennard's approach of forcing telephone companies to accommodate rivals on their networks by signing money-losing deals.

His unrepentant soft approach to broadband set in motion a high-stakes battle over the future of the U.S. telecommunications industry that will continue long after his departure. One pressing issue for Net phone executives is a set of rules the FCC will probably draft long after Powell's departure. To that end, he told the audience of largely Internet phone executives to "keep squawking, be noisy. Have a little faith and jump into the future." Without providing much detail, Powell said the commission is now considering a way to provide "clarity" in the near future.

"VoIP most clearly stands for what I've worked so hard to do," Powell said Tuesday. But the prominence of the technology, and perhaps its low-regulation environment, aren't guaranteed. "VoIP won't be rock stars forever," he said.

Powell, appointed FCC chairman by President Bush in January 2001, leaves behind a booming, substantially deregulated marketplace that has embraced high-speed Internet connections, wireless and VoIP in ways that were nearly unimaginable in the 1990s. In January, Powell announced his resignation as chairman.

Powell may be best known for his efforts to relax rules against media ownership and his crusade against broadcast indecency, which targeted prominent figures including Janet Jackson--after her breast-baring Super Bowl disaster--and talk-show host Howard Stern. On one memorable occasion, Stern phoned a radio show on which the FCC chairman was a guest and challenged Powell to a debate over censorship.

 

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