Patient Adelstein Meets Press, Finally


Washington— If there is one thing that can be said about Jonathan Adelstein, it's this: He's a patient guy.

Early this year, President Bush vowed to nominate him to fill the fifth and final seat on the Federal Communications Commission. Due to politics beyond his control, the longtime Capitol Hill aide had to stew for months before gaining Senate confirmation in November.

The Senate is "known as the world's most deliberative body and I think it really is," Adelstein quipped last week at his first meeting with reporters trying to extract headline-making news. "They certainly deliberated awhile with me."

Sitting in his new, yet-to-be-decorated office, Adelstein introduced his staff and outlined his priorities in general terms. Like many new FCC members, he fielded questions with caution and didn't tip his hand on some of the high-stakes battles about to land on his desk.

At his Senate confirmation hearing in July, Adelstein promised that revival of the telecommunications sector would be an essential task for him. He has not retreated from that commitment.

"Broadband has the capacity to really change the way people live and work," he said. "Anything we can do to promote broadband, I think we should do."

Adelstein, 40, joined the FCC after spending 15 years on Capitol Hill, the last seven working for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (R-S.D.). Born and reared in Rapid City, S.D., he is considered the "rural" commissioner who is committed to ensuring that small-town America maintains technological parity with urban locales.

But Adelstein said his focus would include not just rural America but also the inner cities, minorities and native Americans.

Adelstein, a non-lawyer who has spent much of his life away from South Dakota, graduated from Stanford University with an undergraduate degree in political science and a graduate degree in history. He studied at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

He went to high school at Phillips Academy, an elite Massachusetts prep school that educated both the current and former President Bush.

A short leash?

Adelstein's time at the FCC could be short. His term expires June 30, 2003, because he is filling the time left in the five-year term of Democrat Gloria Tristani, who resigned on Sept. 7, 2001. Unless the White House is bent on replacing him, Adelstein may remain in office until the end of 2004.

"Who knows how long it will go on? For me, it's such a privilege to be here at all. I am just happy to do it," he said.

Republicans control the FCC, with three votes; Adelstein and Michael Copps form the Democratic minority. Prior to Adelstein's arrival, the FCC was deadlocked on some policy matters owing to cracks in the GOP majority. Adelstein has thus become the deciding vote.

One issue of concern to cable that has been deadlocked is whether the FCC will order cable operators to, at some point, carry multiple digital signals supplied by local TV stations. The issue turns on whether cable's legal requirement to carry a station's "primary video" signal is a mandate to carry just one channel, or as many free channels that the stations can stuff within a 6-megahertz allocation.

Asked where he would come down on the meaning of primary, the man some call the swing vote offered a guarded response.

"I don't have any strong feelings about that," he said.

His cable bill: $160

In recent years, at least one FCC member did not own a television set. FCC chairman Michael Powell is a direct-broadcast satellite subscriber. Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree is an unhappy cable subscriber who has threatened to pull the plug over nominal rate hikes.

Quizzed about his own video consumption habits, Adelstein disclosed that he is a cable customer who can't get enough of what Comcast Corp. is offering to his community of Arlington, Va.

"My cable bill is 160 bucks a month. That's because I have a lot of boxes, digital cable and cable modem, which I think is a package deal," Adelstein said.

Although cable has been known for occasional customer-service lapses, Adelstein said he's pleased with his cable company.

"I am pretty happy with it. I love the broadband. The digital TV is just wonderful," he said.

In recent weeks, news reports of rising cable rates have proliferated in major media outlets. But Adelstein declined to bash the industry.

"People are concerned about price, but you also got a lot of new technology being deployed. So you need to look at both sides of the equation," he said, echoing a point Powell has made more than once.

News that Democrat Adelstein declined to parrot the cable-bashing ways of consumer groups spread quickly within the industry.

When a Washington cable attorney received an e-mail message with Adelstein's comments about cable, he forwarded the message to colleagues after changing the subject line to read, "Adelstein Loves Comcast!"