Loud and Clear

Photo: Max Hirshfeld

On a March afternoon in 1999, Bill Kennard drove out of Scottsdale into Arizona's South Valley and turned onto a dusty road leading to the Gila River Indian Reservation. Already, it had been a long day. That morning, he had moderated a contentious debate in which a panel of the nation's telecommunications bigwigs argued over who would control what on the Internet. Toward noon, as the executives pounded the table over how to accelerate the spread of the latest high-speed broadband net connections, Kennard interrupted with an invitation.

"Less than 45 minutes away from here," said the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, "there's an Indian reservation where people are still struggling to get basic telephone service. If you really want to help uplift this country--and maybe gain a little perspective--why don't you come there with me? Because I'd love for this community to bring its expertise and money to help those people get telephones."

Gila, home to the Pima and Maricopa tribes, seems far removed from the communications revolution. Without phones, people have trouble summoning emergency help, let alone dialing up an Internet connection. But that afternoon, when Kennard turned off the interstate toward the reservation, he was bringing the revolution with him. Behind, a caravan of Lincoln Town Cars jounced along the sunbaked road. In each sat a telecom mogul with the power to plug Gila into the 21st century.

The executives began to understand that half of all Indians on tribal lands lack phone service, a prerequisite to even the most rudimentary net access. Since then, telephone and Internet companies have begun wiring and signing up tribal customers--spurred by the FCC's waiver of some technical restraints and its push for federal subsidies to help pay the bills for low-income residents on tribal lands. Kennard followed that this fall with an unprecedented summit in Minneapolis that brought together leaders of 135 tribes and 400 telecom executives. At that meeting, he praised Verizon Communications for its plan to provide $1-a-month phone service on tribal lands.

"Basically, we're advancing the partnership that began on that dusty little road in Gila," Kennard says. "If I can serve to bridge that digital divide, to connect people in this country who can benefit so profoundly from this technology with those who are on the cutting edge, then I will feel I've done something significant."

Those are heady ideals for a regulatory official, but Kennard is a man on a mission. In his 31/2-year tenure, the Clinton-appointed FCC chair has fought zealously for increased public access to all aspects of telecommunications. Many in Washington, however, say he oversteps his authority. He should stick to his role as industry regulator, they contend. Uplifting society is not in the job description.

The first African American to head the FCC, Kennard, '78, has a reputation as a bureaucrat with an agenda--a very nice guy who nonetheless drives politicians and industry leaders to distraction with what they see as an irrelevant philosophy. As one conservative colleague argues, "We should start with what the law instructs us to do, not with what a perfect world would be like."

Created by Congress in 1934, the FCC governs the nation's interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. Traditionally, its chairmen have stayed put in Washington, dealing with industry players who pressed demands. "Some chairmen have [devoted themselves to] mediating battles between the rich and the very wealthy, moving money from one pocket to another," Kennard says. "I decided to do it differently." He ventures beyond the Beltway as often as possible, visiting places like Gila or Newark or Alaska's bush country to, as he puts it, "give a voice to the voiceless."

As head of a powerful agency at a turning point in modern communications, Kennard has made some bold and surprising moves. He has consistently pushed for a trio of principles that some find contradictory: consumer protection, equal opportunities for the underserved, and a strongly competitive marketplace.

So far, he has expedited the spending of billions to wire classrooms across the country to the Internet. He has advocated low-power fm radio licenses as a way to bring small communities together. "He has opened the telecom marketplace to competition, and he has fostered telecommunications for the disability community," says Irwin Krowsnow, a Washington attorney who has been Kennard's mentor since 1981. "He's the consumer champion of the digital age. In a sense, he's fashioned a new fcc for the 21st century."

Others, even some Democrats, would like to rein him in. Howls of outrage resulted when, early in Kennard's tenure, the FCC rebuffed several "baby Bell" companies in their attempts to enter the long-distance market. John Dingell, ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, accused Kennard of preempting the congressional role. And Ernest Hollings, ranking Democrat on the Senate's Commerce Committee, bluntly rebuked him for daring to have an agenda. "We set policy," Hollings scolded. "You administer it."

Krowsnow waves this off as the nature of Washington. "The stakes are so enormously high to whatever interest group--broadcast community or local phone companies or cable operators--that if they find an FCC chairman who doesn't advocate and trumpet their polices, they tend to be very critical," Kennard's longtime supporter says. "Powerful interests prevail on members of Congress to beat up on the FCC."

In the Bell cases, Kennard argued that the companies hadn't opened their facilities to smaller competitors. His interpretation, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1999, foreshadowed the positions he would take throughout his term--favoring the disabled, the poor, minorities and the average American small-fry entrepreneur.

"A lot of people said we had no business thinking about these things," Kennard explains over breakfast one July morning. "No one really thought this was our role. But the Internet is a very powerful tool to uplift people. It can help bridge vexing problems that divide us. Like race and economic status and language barriers and disability."

He pauses over a spoonful of oatmeal. "Technology is the great equalizer. Access to it can determine whether or not you're competitive or have access to jobs and economic opportunities. If the FCC is not focused on these issues, then I believe we're not doing our job."

Hollywood wouldn't cast him as a crusader. His youthful good looks aren't rugged or imposing; his blue eyes seem much too easily amused. With impeccable taste in clothing and the grace of an archbishop, he exudes a low-key charm. Yet he speaks very deliberately and looks straight into your eyes, maintaining that gaze even while he sprinkles brown sugar onto his cereal.

"In Washington, people think you have to be crass," says Kathryn Brown, his chief of staff. "Bill is a consummate gentleman. I've seen him be an extremely tough negotiator in the quietest way. It's been interesting to watch how folks have come to understand that being a gentleman doesn't mean you don't hold your position."

He learned both toughness and gentleness, he says, from his parents. "They were extraordinary people. They were fundamentally hopeful, even though they grew up in an era of segregation. It never embittered them. They had this belief that if you could bring people together, then you could unite them and solve problems."

Kennard's mother, Helen, grew up in California's Central Valley alongside the children of Spanish-speaking migrant workers. Observing that those who learned English had an advantage, she built a career in the Los Angeles public school system, specializing in bilingual education. Both she and Kennard's late father, architect Robert Kennard, were active in the farm labor movement during the '60s and protested the Vietnam war. When the riots of 1965 destroyed much of L.A.'s Watts section, mayor Tom Bradley asked Robert for help in rebuilding.

"His vision was building communities," says his son. "He loved to design buildings that brought people together. But he didn't just design them. He would get the contract and spearhead the whole effort, and then serve on the boards of theaters and clinics and community centers. He'd have these visions of creating churches and housing projects, and he would spin these visions out. There was always a little refrain at our dinner table where he would say, 'The dreamers are dreamin' big tonight!' Then he'd always say, 'But you gotta dream. If you don't, you won't fulfill your dreams.'

"Yeah, I'm a dreamer," Kennard says. "My dad lived in a world of bricks and mortar, where he was literally building the physical world. I live in the world of bits and fiber-optic cables and spectrum, where we are helping to build a virtual world. But he was right. You always have to have an ultimate vision of what you're working for."

Kennard, who grew up in Hollywood, went to Hollywood High because it was the most racially diverse school in the area. "My parents wanted us to understand and fully embrace the cultural diversity of society," he says. "When all the buddies I grew up with went out together, people used to kid us that it looked like the United Nations. We had Asians, Hispanics, Armenians, African Americans, Jews."

Then he headed for Stanford, following his sisters, Lydia, '76, and Gail, '73. Impressed by the role of journalism in changing society, Kennard majored in communication. Friends called him Kenny, and his Hollywood connection afforded a cachet of glamour. "For all we knew, he could have been a child movie star," recalls James Montoya, '75, resident adviser in Kennard's freshman dorm and now Stanford's vice provost for student affairs. "There was always this subtle sense of style he carried with him that people found extraordinarily appealing. He was known for a strong sense of self, for his academic focus and for his wicked sense of humor."

With a pained chuckle, Montoya defines wicked. "He had an uncanny ability to imitate others, including me."

Montoya also remembers Kennard as an earnest young man who would talk long into the night on issues like race or entertainment law. "He had that special combination of depth and intellectual vitality," Montoya says. "And he was always flexible and easygoing. For instance, his freshman roommate brought a drum set with him; Bill had just the kind of personality to be able to handle lots of drum playing. He also moved in and out of different groups with confidence. What stands out most is that he was a bridge builder within communities."

That talent surfaced at campus radio station KZSU. Rather than spin records, Kennard devoted his air time to public affairs. Noting that the station's broadcast range included nearby East Palo Alto, a predominantly African-American community, he involved those neighbors in various informational programs.

On a visit to Stanford last summer, the fcc chairman paid a surprise visit to the studios of KZSU. On the blues program that happened to be airing at the moment, he spoke impromptu, extolling the glories of barbecue and explaining his low-power fm initiative: "A radio station is a lifeline in a lot of communities, and I'm concerned that many communities are losing their local voices."

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford, Kennard earned a law degree from Yale. He moved to Washington in 1981 to work for the National Association of Broadcasters, where he met Krowsnow. Later, both worked at the Washington law firm Verner, Liipfert. "He had great people skills," Krowsnow says. "He won everyone's respect, from the chairman of the board to the cleaning crew at night. And he did a number of things in a very quiet way without ever claiming credit."

Kennard joined the FCC as general counsel in 1993. When then-chairman Reed Hundt left, Hundt recommended Kennard as his successor.

Kennard's four-year term expires this June, and he says he isn't sure what he'd like to do next. He and his wife, Deborah, have come to enjoy life in Washington. On weekends, they like to wander the trails of the city's Rock Creek Park--their baby son, Robert, in a pack on Dad's back. "I am savoring every moment," says Kennard. "I feel like Thoreau, who said, 'I want to breathe deep and suck out the marrow of this life.'"

'The interesting thing about the communications world today," he declares as he finishes his breakfast, "is that everyone is paranoid." His eyes have taken on an impish look.

The big telecom companies, he says, fear technology breakthroughs from the small companies. The little guys, in turn, fear the big guys' ability to gobble them up. "No one is very secure in this field right now. I think that's a good thing, frankly. It means that things are changing and that new entrants can get into this environment and grow rapidly and change the dynamic quickly."

It also helps explain why, on Kennard's watch, the fcc's role has expanded from regulating activities to facilitating open discussion, he says. "For many decades, there was a sense that government could predict where things were going and that things moved in a kind of linear way. But with the advent of the Internet, the marketplace is nonlinear, chaotic, unpredictable. And so we've had to find new ways of solving problems."

His route to creative solutions? "I love debate," he says with a grin. "You do your best thinking when there's a clash of ideas. That is the most important thing someone in my job can do--to get people thinking about and debating these issues in new ways."

One of those debates took place last July when Kennard held the agency's first-ever public hearing on a merger: the proposed marriage between Time Warner and aol. Critics said the hearing was a marketplace interference. Kennard said protecting the marketplace was exactly why he held the hearing. He invited not only the chief executives of aol and Time Warner, but also economists, consumer advocates and smaller, competing entrepreneurs. Although the fcc has yet to issue its ruling, the debate brought both sides of the issue into focus.

At the core of the controversy is the most streamlined advance yet in Internet communications—broadband access. While most Americans are used to "dialing up" a connection to the Internet through a "narrow-band" telephone modem, broadband connections come through cable-tv modems, digital subscriber lines (DSL) or wireless receivers. Compared with the broadband superhighway, dial-up Internet access is a narrow, unpaved road.

Kennard must balance his attempts to protect consumers with fears that over-regulation will stymie progress toward a nationwide broadband infrastructure that promises huge advances in communications. The FCC is obligated, he insists, to make sure any newly merged telecom giant would open access to the "pipes" that connect its services to customers' homes. Open access means competitors must be able to use the lines and equipment already installed--usually through a government-granted franchise--to vie for the same potential broadband customers.

"Broadband," says Kennard, "marks a turning point in the acceleration of the information age. This is a fundamental restructuring of the way people buy goods and services and transact business. It's going to restructure the way people communicate. A big part of my job as chairman is to keep this engine of economic growth humming along. So the more broad bandwidth available to Americans, the better."

Consumer advocacy groups have urged Kennard to push aol and Time Warner to open cable lines to rival Internet service providers (ISPS). Last spring, the Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports), along with the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Media Education and the Media Access Project, filed a petition with the fcc calling for major restrictions on the proposed merger. "Controlling both content and distribution, the [merged] company can design interfaces that capture and lock in customers, while they lock out competitors, except on terms and conditions that are set by the entity controlling the choke point," the petition said.

AOL and Time Warner had earlier promised, in a "memorandum of understanding," to make their cable lines available to other isps. They said they would not place limits on how many isps can enter into agreements to offer broadband cable access on their network. Of course, the devil is in the details, and the FCC must make sure other ISPS really can gain that access.

Though Kennard has his share of adversaries, most have come to respect and like him. Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a conservative Republican who is one of three FCC commissioners working closely with Kennard, openly criticized him for calling the aol hearing. But in an interview the next day, Furchtgott-Roth said with no hint of bitterness, "Bill is an extraordinarily likable fellow. I can't think of anyone whose company I enjoy more, even though I will sometimes disagree on policy matters."

Kathryn Brown says the political broadsides "just roll off him. It's not an arrogant kind of thing; it's more that he believes in what he believes in. And I think he's gotten respect in this town for that eye-on-the-prize approach."

Kennard's own take on criticism is gentlemanly to the end. "In this job, you have to make decisions that fundamentally protect the public interest," he says. "I believe passionately that every interaction you have with other human beings starts with respect. I really try to disagree without being disagreeable."

There's also a little story he likes to tell.

One day, about a year into his job, he says, he was feeling particularly stung by all the barbs as he hailed a cab outside the fcc building. The driver, a regular in that section of town, recognized Kennard and told him he often drove lawyers and lobbyists between the FCC and Capitol Hill. "I hear 'em talking about you sometimes in the cab," the driver confided. "They can't figure you out, because you don't cut deals like the other chairmen did. But you're okay with me, because I know you're trying to help the little guy. And I respect you for that."

Kennard says he left that cab convinced of two things.

First: "I knew I was doing something right. I was doing it differently, and it was gonna be hard, but I was in it for the long run. And if I could connect with this cab driver, well . . . ."

That leads to the second lesson: "In Washington, be careful what you say in cabs."

Patrick A. McGuire is a freelance writer in Abingdon, Md.