All politics is interest group politics

Is the Obama administration delaying the DTV transition with the "help" of an executive whose company stands to gain competitive advantage from doing so?  Julian Sanchez has the story:

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama's call for a delay in the Digital TV transition, long scheduled for February, sent tech and telecom firms into a tizzy. Both Verizon and the Consumer Electronics Association have been pushing back hard against any postponement of the move from analog to digital broadcasting, while AT&T has joined the Consumers Union and several prominent Democratic legislators in supporting the call to give the troubled transition more time. Among those with a vested interest in the debate over a DTV delay is Clearwire, which has been racing to deploy its 4G WiMAX networks ahead of competitors wedded to the LTE standard. And Ars has learned that Clearwire Executive Vice President R. Gerard Salemme has been playing a key advisory role on the DTV changeover within the Obama transition team. 

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It's not clear whether Verizon would really be able to make good on its plans to begin deploying its LTE network by the end of 2009.  Most analysts believe that a relatively short postponement, on the order of three months, would have little effect on 4G deployment--provided it did not set the stage for further delays, as Verizon clearly fears it might.  Such a delay might also avoid a spate of homeowners sliding off icy rooftops as they struggle to install new antennas.

But a longer, more disruptive delay might provide some breathing room for Verizon competitor Clearwire. That company is seeking to build market share for its own WiMAX network, a joint venture with Sprint, before LTE is ready for prime time. Clearwire has boasted that it remains years ahead of the competition, but while WiMAX networks in Portland and Baltimore are already up and running, scheduled expansions to other cities have been delayed until late 2009, even as Verizon has bumped up its own schedule. The company's stock has now been in free-fall for months, and several major backers recently announced they would take major write-downs on their investments in Clearwire. (The roster of large investors in Clearwire includes Obama-ally Google.) A toxic negative feedback loop in investor confidence could leave it unable to finance its promised buildouts for 2009. With any transition delay certain to push the spectrum handover into the next quarter of the fiscal year, if not further, the attendant uncertainty could also factor into investment decisions as Wall Street--and equipment makers--decide which standard to back.

A conflict of interest? 

Enter Gerry Salemme. A telecom industry veteran; former lobbyist; and Clearwire executive vice president for strategy, policy, and external affairs, Salemme has also been a generous Obama supporter. Early in the primary season,  Salemme gave the maximum $2,300 to Obama for America, and then in August threw in another $10,000 to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee that accepts large contributions and carves them up between the party and candidate. (An apparent typo in the OVF's FEC filing credits this donation to "R. Gerard Salemine." OpenSecrets shows the cash as split into $5,400 for the Democratic National Committee's Services Corporation and two contributions of $2,300 to Barack Obama, which on face would seem to exceed Salemme's cap for the primary and general combined.) Once the race to the White House was won, Salemme scrounged another $5,000 for the transition effort.

As of this writing, Salemme is not mentioned anywhere on the site--which lists members of the Obama transition's staff, policy working groups, and agency review teams--nor has there been any public announcement of his involvement with the presidential transition. A spokesman for his company says that Salemme "remains in his position as Executive VP at Clearwire." But Ars has learned that Salemme has been on leave using accrued vacation and acting as a key advisor to the Obama transition team on DTV issues.

It is unfortunately true that the people with the greatest expertise in any issue are usually the people with the greatest interest in how it turns out.  But the appearance of conflict of interest here is simply too large.  The Obama team should never have let Salemme get this involved.