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Storm Warnings For Kevin Martin


In a hushed hearing room at the FCC headquarters last May, Cheryl Waller choked back tears as she recounted the death of her three-month-old daughter. At 6:35 p.m. on Mar. 24, the baby stopped breathing. The frantic mother dialed 911 several times but got only a voice recording. Finally, a neighbor reached a 911 operator -- but by the time medics arrived, it was too late. The infant was pronounced dead at 6:51 p.m.

Waller blamed her Internet phone company for failing to hook up to a 911 call center. She urged the Federal Communications Commission to pass Chairman Kevin J. Martin's proposal to require Internet carriers to tighten up their emergency services within 120 days -- "seven days longer than my daughter lived," said Waller, dissolving into tears. "She died at 113 days old because I could not reach 911." All four members of the FCC promptly voted to back the chairman's plan. "You have made a difference," Martin told Waller.

It was just the difference Martin was looking for when he invited the grieving mother to speak. His proposal to impose traditional phone regulations on nascent voice-over-Internet phone technology faced industry opposition and potential dissents from FCC commissioners. But Waller's account helped him carry the day with a bit of political theater, rare for dry regulatory proceedings.

TELECOM'S HARRY POTTER

Tactics like these have helped the 38-year-old FCC chief win a string of victories since he took over the agency in March. Facing a 2-to-2 party-line split among commissioners, Martin chose to plow ahead without waiting for the Oval Office to fill vacancies that would give him a GOP majority on the five-member panel. That has required the soft-spoken North Carolinian -- dubbed Harry Potter, for his boyish looks, by telecom insiders -- to horse-trade with his Democratic colleagues.

Martin's results -- including a unanimous vote for a proposal to free DSL broadband services from traditional telephone rules -- provide a sharp contrast with the record of his predecessor, Michael K. Powell. By as soon as Oct. 28, Martin wants to notch another win, approving the historic mergers of two of the Baby Bells with their onetime long-distance rivals: SBC Communications () with AT&T () and Verizon Communications () with MCI ().

But those deals could also mark the end of Martin's oh-so-smooth sail. Just on the horizon are hot issues -- from charges of indecent broadcasts to media consolidation to next year's rewrite of the telecom laws -- that could be contentious. "Will he avoid a policy shipwreck on his watch?" says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer advocate. "I'm not so sure."

So far, though, Martin has managed to steer clear of the controversies -- such as sweeping deregulation of the telecom and media industries -- that plagued Powell and embarrassed the Bush Administration. In contrast, "Kevin can achieve the clear objective of free markets, but in a way that builds consensus," says White House Counselor Dan Bartlett. Says Martin: "I am willing to stand up for principles. But nobody has a monopoly on the right answer."

The fourth of five children of an insurance salesman and a homemaker, Martin hardly seemed destined to become a political broker. Growing up in rural Waxhaw, N.C., near Charlotte, he suffered such severe asthma that doctors ordered his parents to install air conditioning and keep him inside, where he could only watch other kids play from afar. But the self-described bubble boy developed drive and an ability to size up other people. "When my health did improve in the fifth grade," Martin says, "I had a strong desire to interact more with my peers, because I wasn't able to before."

WAR ROOM

He made up for lost time, playing high school football and serving as student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating from Harvard Law School, where he met his wife, Catherine, now a White House Deputy Assistant to the President, he joined the FCC as an aide in 1997. Then, a stint as the Bush campaign's general counsel -- including a key role in the Florida recount in 2000 -- catapulted him to an appointment as an FCC commissioner a year later.

Martin's innate political instincts have kicked in time and again. The morning Katrina hit, he set up a war room to approve emergency requests for rule changes to keep phone and broadcast services operating in the storm zone. When Clear Channel Communications Inc. () employees seeking fuel for their New Orleans generators were held up at gunpoint by looters, the FCC persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide armed guards and fuel from Baton Rouge.

After a tour of the Gulf Coast, Martin announced the allocation of $211 million in universal service funds -- normally used to connect low-income and rural households to phone service -- to provide aid, including free wireless service, for storm victims.

The FCC's two Democrats went along with the unorthodox use of the funds in large part because of Martin's earlier groundwork. In August the FCC chief had given the Democrats a key role in the vote to deregulate DSL. The Democrats feared that the move would let, say, Verizon provide more efficient broadband service to its own Internet phone service than to an independent provider such as Vonage Holdings Corp. Martin gave the Democrats a carrot -- allowing them to attach a statement endorsing equal access for all providers -- but made it clear that their influence would dwindle if they stalled on passage until the FCC had a GOP majority. Martin got a 4-to-0 vote.

Some issues aren't likely to play out so neatly. The FCC's crackdown on broadcasts deemed indecent, a key issue for Bush Administration conservatives, will test Martin's political skills. He has come down squarely on the anti-smut side, declaring war on TV networks by suggesting that the FCC could allow local stations to block more network programs they find offensive. One outraged network executive suggests that Martin is cozying up to local broadcasters in case he wants to run for office.

Martin declined to respond -- and won't say where his ambitions lie. But as FCC issues grow thornier and the one-time bubble boy repeatedly has his political mettle tested in the real world, he can expect plenty more of those potshots.

By Catherine Yang in Washington


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