President Obama's nominee for Federal Communications Commission chairman, Julius Genachowski, has emerged from a June 16 Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee vetting with high marks. His nomination now moves to the full Senate for confirmation, which is expected with little controversy. Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, nominated for a second term on the FCC, was also approved by the committee.
While the audio industry still awaits final FCC rulings and clarifications on white space spectrum allocations and usage by TV band devices, the hearings addressed this issue by implication only. Rather, the nominees were asked for their views on issues like indecency, exclusive mobile carrier arrangements, media ownership rules and broadband integration and infrastructure.
Genachowski, whose technology background includes time as a legal adviser to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt during the Clinton administration and as technology advisor to the Obama presidential campaign, has promised to run a more transparent commission with a strong technology orientation.
In his hearing, Genachowski stated that he plans to use federal economic stimulus money to bring broadband Internet services to underserved, generally rural areas. The Obama administration included $7.2 billion in funds for this purpose.
In addition, a number of other responses may prove enlightening on the future direction of the FCC. Genachowski expressed interest in a proposed Senate bill calling for the FCC to conduct a comprehensive inventory of all available frequency spectrum between 200MHz and 3.5GHz and how it is used for both licensed and unlicensed activities.
Another major hot button is the examination of exclusive wireless carrier deals routinely done by the makers of mobile phones. Noting that traditional phone services are legally required to allow consumers to connect any legal device to their networks, Genachowski has stated that, under his chairmanship, the FCC would review whether mobile handset deals requiring a specific wireless carrier (such as AT&T for the Apple iPhone) are anticompetitive.
The long-standing request for action on this issue originated with the Rural Cellular Association (RCA), which charges that such deals shortchange rural areas. Similar calls to action have come from other grassroots groups. The mobile phone industry feels strongly that exclusivity deals have been a boon to consumers, spurring the development and availability of new technologies. In a written response to a question from Sen. John Kerry, Genachowski said, “If confirmed, I will ensure that the full record on the RCA petition is reviewed and act accordingly to promote competition and consumer choice." Interim FCC Chairman Michael Copps has already instructed the commission to begin planning for such a review.
Genachowski also supports greater diversity in media ownership, expressing his hope to develop strategies to bring more women- and minority-owned representation into the media. It should be noted that both the Senate and the House of Representatives are currently considering laws that would expand the availability of low-power FM radio licenses.
Reading between the lines, it would appear that the combination of a frequency allocation review, white spaces technology development and possible expansion of LPFM license availability may create a “perfect storm” of issues that allows the soon-to-be confirmed FCC chairman to consider a wide variety of rules and policies. With the Obama administration on record as favoring technology development in the white spaces, expansion of broadband availability and Internet neutrality, it seems clear that the FCC will be used as an instrument of the administration’s technology, communication and, to a lesser extent, social agenda.
Considering the extended timeline and limited success of the recent DTV transition, one can only hope that the infusion of fresh blood and a visionary agenda will help the FCC move with more self-assurance than seen in recent years. With the United States lacking a cohesive policy on broadband and wireless communications, the coming years will be critical in defining whether this country will be a leader or follower in broadband availability and mobile communications. The FCC under Julius Genachowski will play a critical role in determining both the direction and success of our nation’s progress in these areas, and whether it can be achieved without crippling existing technologies such as broadcast television and wireless microphone systems.
With never-ending advances in technology constantly challenging the status quo, the FCC must make the transition from “protector of broadcasting in the public interest” to “communications technology consultant for the U.S.” The importance of this critical role cannot be overestimated, and it is hoped that the commission will see the big picture and take decisive action before its too-brief window of political opportunity passes.