President and CEO, NCTA, The Internet & Television Association
Hometown: Birmingham, Ala.
Current residence: Washington D.C.
- JD, Georgetown Law School
- BA, William & Mary
Selected work history
- Vice Chair, America’s Promise Alliance
- FCC Chairman, 2001-2005
- FCC Commissioner, 1997-2001
- Chief of Staff, Antitrust Division, Justice Department
The turn of the century was a more bipartisan time—a time when a communications-policy expert like Michael Powell could be nominated to the Federal Communications Commission by a Democratic president, then elevated to chairman by his Republican successor. In 2011, Powell, the son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, brought those bipartisan credentials to the NCTA, which at the time was broadening its focus from cable television to the internet and streaming services. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was a landmark career moment for you, like a defining moment that you can kind of put a pin in?
I would say there’s two pretty defining moments in my career. I think the first is the beginning of my career, when I really was on a path as an Army officer, and that was the career I wanted, the career I trained for, the career I expected to follow for the rest of my life—except a tragic Army Jeep accident changed the course of that irrevocably. I broke my spine and broke my pelvic cradle and was told, sadly, that I was going to have to leave the Army as a consequence of the injury. After a year in the hospital, I found myself without the path that I thought I was destined to pursue. And it reminded me that life is pretty random—you can have every plan in the world, but you’d better be prepared to adapt when a curve comes your way. And that put me on a path that led me to where I am today. …
I think the other one was when I did start to find that path and went to law school and started pursuing law and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it. My phone rang and it was the newly appointed head of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, Joel Klein, who had been a professor of mine in law school and we had really hit it off. And he said, “Come work for me.” And I became the chief of staff of the Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, which taught me a lot about telecommunications. This was a time of the Microsoft lawsuit, the time just after the 1996 Telecom Act had passed. … It taught me the joys of that subject matter at a senior level. And I think because I had achieved that senior level, I came to the attention of Senator John McCain and others. It ultimately led to an appointment to the FCC. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Did you have someone that you view as a mentor? Or somebody that was a guiding person for you?
I think it’s the wish of every child that you would say that it starts with your parents. And in my case, that’s very true. I mean, not only did I have a remarkably successful father and mother, you know, they were great mentors, and I summarize what I learned as: They taught me right, wrong, and responsibility. That was it. And you know, in many ways, life boils down to those three things.
But in my professional career, I often tell young people, I think in your 20s you should worry a lot less about what you do and what your title is but who you get to do it for. I’m a big fan of getting tucked under the wing of someone who is just a great teacher and a great mentor. If I had to pick one person, I think I would go to Judge Harry Edwards, who was the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. When I was a young lawyer, he gave me the opportunity to clerk for him. I’ve just never had such a boot camp in my life … a year of commitment to unflinching standards, an exceptional amount of humility combined with wisdom. To this day, he’s a dear best friend. I wouldn’t make a move in life without calling him.
I remember when I went to the FCC, believe it or not I was really intimidated. I was 34 years old; I was scared that it was bigger than me. And I called to express that sort of vulnerable anxiety to him. And he slapped me around. He said, “Listen, you’re at an age where you need to trust that other people know your capabilities better than you know them yourself.”
Is there a certain issue that motivates you in particular?
There are three great economic epochs: the agricultural age, the industrial age; I had a front-row seat at the arrival of the information age. When I started at the commission, no one I knew had a cell phone. By the time I left, I didn’t know anybody who didn’t. And so I have always been passionate about the internet, about broadband, about getting that right for the country because I was there at its inception. And I’ve always had a love and a passion and a belief that information systems bring the world closer together, that connectivity really is the key to communal society. The thing that makes human beings distinct from animals is their communications capability. … If you would have ever doubted that, COVID proved it. You know, at a moment when all of a sudden, without warning, we had to say to everybody, “Go home, don’t come out of your room and connect to the world via this infrastructure we built,” it was the validation of millions of choices over the course of many decades.
Aside from COVID-19, what has been the biggest event or policy that has impacted your work this past year?
I would say it was the agenda of smart deregulation in this administration and in this Congress. We’ve probably had one of the most dramatic deregulatory periods in decades. And again, we’re largely focused on the FCC more than the big pile. Under Chairman [Ajit] Pai at the FCC, there was a very clear-eyed vision and an execution of that vision that revolved around smart deregulation. And it gave us both the opportunity to advocate for changes and to worry about changes that might, we thought, destabilize markets.
The statute that governs our industry is multiple decades old; it is running out of relevance because it was minted in the 1990s, when the internet was barely a glimmer in anybody’s eye. And so a lot of our deregulation is not the classic libertarian free marketer versus someone who thinks government should have a role. It’s about cleaning out ambiguous regulatory underbrush that has a hard time making any sense in the 2020s in the way that it did in the 1990s.
Has your role as a Black head of office changed at all in light of recent events?
Yeah, the recent events really were thoroughly saddening, thoroughly exhausting, fatiguing. So there’s a personal part. It all hurts. It surprised me how much it hurts. I mean, I’m no young person. I’m 57 years old. I’ve seen other riots and other protests, and other shootings. But for some reason, this time, there was just a part of me that [thought], “We’re still doing this; we’re still doing this.”
How does it affect me in my role? One, you’re more visible, right? You are one of a handful of people in a position of leadership visibility, and with that visibility is some responsibility, accountability, and voice. You are more consulted. I was a little bit taken aback by how frequently my phone started ringing. Everyone from CEOs in my industry, to friends, to fraternity brothers, to reporters, [asking], “What do you think?” Not that I have any kind of monopoly on what Black people should think, [but] I’m comfortable trying to be an ambassador to bridging understanding about my race and the problems of race.
Everybody gets the basics mostly right. You put out the right tweet and the right memo and the right statement. That’s the easy part. I find the hard part is your voice in more intimate, quiet conversations. It’s what do your employees look to you to say? It’s the signal you send with your companies when there’s an issue and you decide, “This is the moment I’ve got to be more forceful from a vulnerable personal perspective to help them see why I want to do this.” There was a recent effort, for example, to sign on to a letter about a certain executive order dealing with diversity training. It didn’t have that much to do with us. I mean, we could make a very compelling argument not to be involved. But it meant something personally for us to be involved.
What do you think needs to change in the government-affairs industry to address these types of problems?
The government-affairs industry really reflects the values of the business communities that it represents. One fundamental shift that’s been taking place, even before the latest resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the latest resurgence of the protests in the wake of George Floyd, there has been a steady shift in rethinking capitalism. The Business Roundtable has talked about moving from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, and there is a concerted effort by very prominent companies and industry groupings to accept that business has a greater responsibility than to just turn a profit for its shareholders. … And so, equally, I think, trade associations that are in tune with this should be also shaping their policy positions and their actions and activities to reflect those values.
So if I were to give you a practical example, we sat down [over the summer] and said, “Our school kids are going to be in trouble. This thing’s not going to be over this summer like some people wish; we’re going to be sending kids right back to this remote-learning thing. We know our networks are OK—meaning we had them pressure-tested; they will work. The problem is we’re going to have a whole lot of kids who can’t get access to that. And how can we help?” …
And we ended up crafting what is now known as the K-12 Bridge to Broadband program, in which we got all of the companies in our industry to commit to allow school systems to discount the buy in bulk broadband services on behalf of their students in need, so that students didn’t have to pay for that. …
Did some regulator tell us to do that? Nope. That we were told it’s the law? No, we recognized it’s what the country needs right now. … Now, is it Machiavellian? Well, it builds goodwill. It shows policymakers we are a responsible corporate citizen, that, “When push comes to shove and we start talking about policies, I hope you will respectfully listen to our points of view because we’re a good actor and we’re part of the solution.”
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