A New Signal from the FCC
After years of dealing with a regulator many considered an autocrat and ideologue, executives in media, telecom, and technology say they are encouraged by President Barack Obama's newly confirmed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Julius Genachowski, like most FCC chiefs, is a lawyer. But there the similarities with his predessors end. Genachowski helped media mogul Barry Diller build his e-commerce empire and worked as a venture capitalist. Those experiences arguably give him a broad view of the industries he will regulate. Genachowski is also considered fair and pragmatic. Executives believe his ascension will be a welcome change from predecessor Kevin Martin, who they say targeted certain industries and turned an obsession with what he deemed smut on TV into a moral crusade.
Genachowski, 46, declined to be interviewed and has so far offered few specifics about his regulatory philosophy. But he seems to share with Obama, a former Harvard Law School classmate, a conviction that U.S. communications policy needs to be dragged into the 21st century. "Julius and the President are passionate about technology. You might even say they are techno-geeks," says Ken Ferree, a former top FCC official. "They know how important it is to make technology as accessible to as many people as possible. That passion will make a huge difference." Here, say FCC insiders, are three of Genachowski's top priorities:
Broadband Deployment. Obama is determined to bring speedy Web access to more Americans and, in doing so, improve the nation's global competitiveness. (The U.S. currently ranks 15th in broadband penetration.) The President expects the FCC to help stimulate the economy and create jobs by bringing broadband to unserved regions. Genachowski may well use a fund originally set up to expand phone service to do the same for the Web. The FCC chief also may push for faster broadband so it can better handle such modern needs as video and corporate data. Genachowski is supposed to have a broadband plan on the boss's desk by early next year.
Net Neutrality. In recent years, a battle has raged over the issue. Web service providers want the option to charge users according to how much bandwidth they use and to give priority to certain services over others. A legion of digerati argue that such restrictions would limit freedom of expression on the Internet. Obama has put himself squarely in the latter camp, and the big question is whether Genachowski will push for legislation mandating so-called net neutrality.
Media Diversity. Obama wants to make it easier for minorities to own TV and radio stations and to push distributors to offer programs with more diverse viewpoints. To make that happen, Genachowski could use a carrot and stick, says veteran communications lawyer Andrew Lipman: on the one hand reducing the length of broadcast licenses if programming isn't deemed sufficiently diverse and offering tax credits to broadcasters who sell to minorities.
It will be several months before the business community gets a clear reading on Genachowski's FCC. But executives already know one thing for certain: The new guy will have far more clout than Martin. Not only did Genachowski advise the Obama campaign on telecom policy, he is among the enviable few who participate in the President's Sunday pickup basketball games. Even if he can't match Obama's on-court moves, Genachowski has the big man's ear.