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Spotlight on NTIA: Jim McConnaughey, Chief Economist

This post is part of our “Spotlight on NTIA” blog series, which is highlighting the work that NTIA employees are doing to advance NTIA’s mission of promoting broadband adoption, finding spectrum to meet the growing demand for wireless technologies, and ensuring the Internet remains an engine for innovation and economic growth.

Jim McConnaugheyNTIA Chief Economist Jim McConnaughey is, as one would expect from an economist, passionate about economics and its use in public policy.

Yet, McConnaughey’s first job out of college as a junior-level economist at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was more serendipity than strategic career planning. McConnaughey said he sought a job at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) but due to a misunderstanding was given a phone number to call about an opening at the FCC.

He quickly realized his mistake but was intrigued by the work the FCC was engaged in at the time, which included an in-depth look at the Bell System’s monopoly of the U.S. phone market – a probe that eventually helped lead to its breakup. His nine-year stint at the FCC cemented his interest in communications policy issues. After leaving the FCC in 1983, McConnaughey went to work as the research manager at a public policy consulting firm, where he co-authored two books and testified in rate cases. After six years he wanted to return to the government. He eventually landed at NTIA as its senior economist, working on a variety of issues including universal service, competition, and regulatory reform and has remained with the agency for 24 years.

In recent years, much of McConnaughey’s time has been spent focused on “broadband, broadband, broadband,” he says. He analyzes data, much of it coming from the U.S. Census Bureau, and leads a team that drafts reports based on that data. He most recently worked on the latest edition of NTIA’s Digital Nation report, “Exploring the Digital Nation: America’s Emerging Online Experience,” which detailed how and why Americans connect to the Internet. He also is part of a group assessing the economic and social impact of NTIA’s broadband grants program and also has represented NTIA for more than 20 years at meetings of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

One of the things McConnaughey says he likes most about his job is the spotlight his work brings to the digital divide and Americans who still do not access broadband. “I love what I do. I feel lucky, like the kid in the candy store, though sometimes eating more than I should,” he says.

McConnaughey got his undergraduate degree with distinction from the University of Maryland and obtained a Master’s degree in economics from George Washington University at night while holding down his day job at the FCC. He later obtained a Master’s degree in public administration with high honors from Harvard University in response to a self-described midlife crisis.

A native Washingtonian, McConnaughey says while he and his father pursued different careers, they both relished the opportunity to work on cutting-edge issues. For his father, it was having the chance to work on nuclear submarines in the 1950s as an engineer with the Naval Research Labs and General Dynamics. For the son, it’s working on research related to the Internet. He adds that both he and his father were also fortunate to have married understanding spouses who put up with their workaholic husbands.

In addition to his genial manner, McConnaughey is also known around NTIA as the “donut guy.” Every few weeks, McConnaughey treats his colleagues to donuts. “I hate to eat alone,” he says of his generosity.

When he’s not poring over broadband data or eating donuts, McConnaughey enjoys traveling with his wife, a school teacher, who was named Maryland State Teacher of the Year in 1990. His favorite travels include viewing the spectacular Hong Kong harbor from the hillsides by moonlight and ascending the Royal Mile up to surreal Edinburgh Castle in Scotland.