FCC official mum on AT&T-BellSouth merger

While quiet on merger and Net neutrality, he says government intervention in market failures must be "narrowly tailored and sunsetted."

WASHINGTON--A Federal Communications Commission official who may hold the deciding vote on a pending merger between AT&T and BellSouth declined to say Wednesday whether he plans to participate in the process.

Analysts scrutinizing the deal's progression have speculated that Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell would recuse himself from the decision on whether to approve the controversial $80 billion deal . McDowell spent seven years as an executive with the trade association Comptel, which lobbies for competitors of the Bell telephone companies, before assuming the FCC post six months ago. But now that the FCC has thrice postponed its vote because the remaining two Democrats and two Republicans are reportedly at an impasse on conditions for the deal, some have said he may be forced to weigh in.

Following a luncheon speech at an event hosted here by the Federal Communication Bar Association, McDowell told reporters he had "no news" to report on the deal. The U.S. Department of Justice gave its unconditional blessing to the melding of the telecommunications giants in October.

As for how the agency plans to handle the hot button issue of Net neutrality, McDowell also had nothing new to offer Wednesday. Proponents of the concept, which include Google, eBay and a number of consumer advocacy groups, would like to see Congress pass new laws prohibiting network operators from charging Internet content companies extra fees for premium delivery. Telephone and cable companies have said they need the option of using such a business model to recoup investments in new broadband infrastructure.

"We're going to collect more data and study the marketplace," he told CNET News.com.

Letting the marketplace trump government regulation was a recurrent theme in McDowell's 11-minute speech to representatives from communications companies--including AT&T and Verizon--and law practices. Sometimes government must step in to address market failures, he said, but those actions must be "narrowly tailored and sunsetted."

McDowell did, however, issue a vague warning to companies contemplating interference with consumers' ability to access and upload content as they please. "Those who act to frustrate this new wave of democracy do so at their own peril," he said.

The speech was light-hearted at times--"fluffy chitchat," as McDowell described it--as the lawyer-turned-commissioner cracked jokes about regulatory filings that only fellow communications attorneys could appreciate. When asked by an audience member how the FCC's policymaking would be influenced by the new Democratic majority in Congress, he quipped, "I'd written about that in my speech and included a joke that my staff made me take out."

When the crowd's laughter died down, the Republican appointee regrouped with a stock answer: "We will continue to march forward, and we'll keep the dialogue going."

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