Stargazing FCC Chief Sees Broadband Future With His Own UnclearTodd Shields
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski lives by his Apple iPad. He reads speeches off it. He marvels at using an app to identify constellations in the night sky. He wants everybody to be as connected as he is.
The Democrat who touts “our mobile future” started his tenure by writing a plan to spread high-speed Internet to rural America, and calling for more airwaves and higher speeds for mobile networks. Last week he joined an effort to ensure access for the roughly 100 million Americans who haven’t adopted broadband at home.
“Since I arrived at the FCC, it’s been broadband, broadband, broadband,” Genachowski said in an e-mail. “That’s been our focus, and we’ve taken big steps.”
Whether Genachowski will be at the FCC to see through his vision is considered an open question in Washington, where political appointees often leave early in a president’s second term. Genachowski’s term ends July 1, though he could be reappointed by President Barack Obama or stay without presidential action until late next year.
“If you’re asking me whether I’m leaving, I’ll tell you that I have a lunch reservation in 10 minutes, and so we should keep the press conference moving,” Genachowski, 50, told reporters Jan. 31. “We have a terrific agenda. I’m focused on the agenda, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, declined to comment because the matter is about personnel.
The chairman’s push for more broadband continues tomorrow, when a proposal aimed at expanding Wi-Fi service is set for a commission vote.
“The U.S. broadband economy is thriving today, with record-setting private investment and unprecedented innovation,” Genachowski said in the e-mail. “We’ve moved from laggard to leader on mobile, and the U.S. laid more fiber in the last year than in over a decade.”
Genachowski has warned U.S. economic growth could be compromised if wireless demand from smartphones overwhelms available airwaves. His pending initiatives include auctions, perhaps next year, that will encourage television-station owners to give up their airwaves for use by smartphone networks.
His focus on broadband has broken with some priorities of his predecessors. Genachowski’s FCC has levied no fines for broadcast indecency, after a flurry of penalties under Republican chairmen from 2003 to 2008, and he hasn’t completed a loosening of media-ownership rules.
The TV-airwaves auction could free 120 megahertz for wireless use, according to the National Broadband Plan that Genachowski guided to completion in 2010. That amount is almost one-quarter of the frequencies that Obama set as a national goal.
“The next chairman is going to be able to cut the ribbon on a wonderful show” as the auctions proposed by Genachowski unfold, Reed Hundt, a former FCC chairman, said in interview. “When he came in the cupboard was bare -- they didn’t have any spectrum to auction.”
Genachowski opposed second-largest U.S. wireless carrier AT&T Inc.’s proposal in 2011 to buy fourth-largest provider T-Mobile USA Inc., and the company withdrew its bid after the Justice Department sued to block the merger.
“He said, ’No way.’ And what do you know, he’s already been proved right,” said Hundt, the former FCC chairman under whom Genachowski served as chief counsel.
Blocking the deal helped spur wireless competition by preserving T-Mobile as a competitor and by protecting the third-largest carrier, Sprint Nextel Corp., from being overwhelmed by a new behemoth, Hundt said. Japanese mobile carrier Softbank Corp. is seeking to buy Sprint, which wouldn’t have otherwise happened, Hundt said.
“We’re not going to agree on everything,” Bob Quinn, AT&T’s senior vice president-federal regulatory said in an interview. “Obviously we’re not going to agree on T-Mobile. But you’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and I think they’ve done a great job in making broadband their priority.”
Genachowski was chief counsel at the FCC in the 1990s. He later worked at Barry Diller’s IAC/Interactive Corp. before coming back to government to run his old agency.
Most FCC chairmen don’t stay longer than four years, Andrew Lipman, a Washington-based partner at Bingham McCutchen LLP, said in an interview. Presidents selecting new FCC leaders often offer names not anticipated by Washington’s telecommunications community, he said.
Genachowski will be remembered for the TV-airwaves auction and for changing the complex U.S. system of telephone subsidies to redirect money to broadband service, Jeffrey Eisenach, a visiting scholar at the Washington-based policy group American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview.
“Those two things were regarded as political third rails,” Eisenach said. “He got things moving that had not been moving.”
Ron Conway, a founding partner of SV Angel, a San Francisco-based fund, calls Genachowski “an awesome friend of the tech community.” Genachowski in 2010 passed open-Internet rules that bar slowing or blocking of Web traffic, and he has rallied Silicon Valley executives to help support the rules, Conway said in an interview. The rules face a court challenge from Verizon Communications Inc. and MetroPCS Communications Inc., which say they unfairly restrain their operations.
“Yes, there are challenges ahead -- always will be in this fast-moving world,” Genachowski said in his e-mail. “We need to continue to drive increasing broadband speed, capacity and adoption; free up more spectrum; protect Internet freedom; and ensure healthy competition. I remain focused on these challenges.”