Live from Hot Chips 19: Special Presentation, Reed Hundt

Glaskowsky summarizes a presentation by Reed Hundt of Frontline Wireless, who is a former chairman of the FCC.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
3 min read

Yes, I'm still at Hot Chips. This post covers a special presentation by Reed Hundt of Frontline Wireless, who is a former chairman of the FCC. (Michael Kanellos has also blogged about this speech, here.) Previous Hot Chips installments include the AMD keynote, wireless networking, technology and software, process technology, multicore designs, IBM's Power 6 efforts, Vernor Vinge's keynote address and Nvidia. Other CNET coverage may be found here. Comments are welcome!

Reed Hundt is best known as a former chairman of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), where his role in enacting the Telecommunications Act of 1996 generated considerable controversy.

He opened his talk by regaling us with a tale of being introduced at some previous event as "Reed Hundt, arrogant and aloof." He says he went home and complained to his spouse, who told him that if he's really arrogant, he's doing everyone a favor by being aloof. He got the audience laughs he wanted; it was certainly a disarming story.

Throughout the speech, Hundt came across as an interesting person who is truly devoted to using radio technology to improve the world. He's clearly a trained speaker (clue No. 1: he opened with self-deprecatory humor), so it's hard to tell what he's like in person, but he certainly seems to have a lot of professional connections--see the bio on his personal Web site here, which oddly omits the Frontline Wireless relationship.

Although he was up front about his involvement in Frontline, a profit-oriented company, joking frequently about it, he also implied that his primary interest was the public interest. *Ping* went Peter's BS detector, as it always does when someone says he's hoping to make money by serving the public interest.

He didn't immediately make his purpose clear for speaking at Hot Chips, but it was clear enough that he was working up to some kind of political argument. He made an analogy between the airwaves and the highways--what if, he said, all the highways were forcibly privatized and sold to companies that insisted on controlling not only whose trucks could travel on their highways, but what those trucks could carry?

This sort of argument may work well on a politically naive audience like the engineers at Hot Chips, but it doesn't work so well with me--it's just a terrible analogy. Highways are essential to the survival of everyone in the country. The vast majority of the radio spectrum is used for entertainment; I think it's perfectly reasonable for private companies to control the means for distributing the entertainment they produce.

As Hundt spoke his purpose became clearer, with jokes about how President Bush wasn't actually elected (*ping* went the BS detector again), flattery about how Hot Chips attendees are "a hundred times smarter than political scientists" (*ping*), and sly comments about how the next Presidential election will determine whether the Internet remains free. *Ping* *ping* *ping*.

He made a good point about the 2001 FCC decision to allow individual wireless providers to own large portions of the available wireless spectrum. This policy change made it easier for some companies--Hundt called out AT&T and Verizon--to build dominant positions.

That's fine. But Hundt asserted that this was automatically a bad thing, which is one step too far--a step he took quite deliberately in order to reach his political conclusion. He's campaigning for a specific set of FCC rules for the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction I mentioned (here) earlier this month...rules that would benefit his company, Frontline Wireless.

So to me, the bottom line is that he just has a different opinion about the appropriate balance between proprietary and open technology in the wireless industry than the companies he's criticizing. I love differences of opinion. I especially love it when different policies get a chance to compete in the marketplace, so I strongly support this more open model for the 700 MHz spectrum. It isn't being tried anywhere else, so it ought to be tried here.

But I'll be damned if I'll try to shame, flatter and bamboozle anyone else into supporting it, as Hundt did in this speech.