FCC chairman aims to serve the public interest with transparency, level playing field

For a simple, visible metaphor for the difference between the Bush and Obama administrations, you need to go no further than comparing their choices to head the Federal Communications Commission.

On the one side, there’s former Verizon legal advisor, Dick Cheney counsel and Bush-Cheney 2000 recount team Deputy General Counsel Kevin Martin, with a management and decision-making style described by a 2008 congressional report as heavy-handed, opaque, noncollegial, peremptory, obstructionist and contrary to the public interest.

On the other side, there’s Launchbox Digital co-founder and former operations manager at Internet media company IAC/InterActiveCorp Julius Genachowski. At last month's CES, the new FCC chairman called transparency "a great disinfectant" and said that "a marketplace of ideas" supplied the best route to sound public policy. Genachowski's hope in the next year, he said, was that by CES 2011, the FCC would be "operating like a 21st-century agency," adding that "the flip side is making sure that public information is available in searchable, machine-readable, easily available form" so people can take advantage of the information government agencies collect on the public's behalf.

In his hour-long talk with CEA President Gary Shapiro, Genachowski covered a lot of territory, from Net neutrality, universal broadband and the looming spectrum "crisis," to the agency's role in serving the national interest in a new century.

Net neutrality is one of Genachowski's signature issues; one of his first acts as chairman was to underscore the importance of an open playing field by asking Apple to explain why it blocked Google Voice from its app store.

The Net neutrality debate, he said, "underscores the importance in developing sensible 'rules of the road' for the Internet, making sure we preserve a free and open Internet … We have benefited enormously from … this open architecture … The gaps between what people think are sensible [rules] are narrowing. More and more, the idea that open platforms are good business is becoming conventional wisdom."

Economic growth is also a central reason for making ubiquitous broadband a priority. "Infrastructure in the U.S. will be the platform for ongoing innovation … an engine for economic growth. We think over the next 10 years, it's essential for the U.S. economy."

"Competition … is the mother of invention," he continued. "Ensuring competition solves many problems. Empowering consumers can promote competition and … [eliminate] the need for government to get involved … In the future, you're not going to see us prescribing in every area."

In his comments, Genachowski noted that the set-top box is one focus of his broadband policy team. "The absence of a computer is an obstacle to broadband adoptions. TVs are in 98 percent of people's homes — can the TV be part of the solution to broadband? If you look at the Internet … it's produced millions of apps … If you look at the living room and TV, the number is much, much lower."

Of course, the poltergeist threatening to disturb the ubiquitous broadband party is the looming “spectrum crisis.” "Our data shows that there's a looming crisis — at some point in the future," Genachowski said. "Tackling spectrum challenges involves moving simultaneously on numerous fronts."

The first front is the unobjectionable "find more spectrum" effort." But lest listeners become complacent, "that's not the only thing we need to do. We need to look at spectrum policy to make sure spectrum is being used as efficiently as possible.”

"We have to look at possible ways to encourage efficient use of spectrum, [such as] secondary licensing," he said. "There's a lot of work at device and software level to increase efficiency. I'm not sure if the FCC has a role — is there anything we can do to incentivize? … Overwhelmingly, investment is going to have to come from the private sector … What are the things we can do to encourage investment in this area?"

In policy terms, Genachowski posed the question: Is the scarcity rationale dead? "In a 100-percent broadband [environment], does the scarcity rationale for heavy regulation of broadcasting go away?" The reality remains, however, that "there isn't enough spectrum in are country to do what we need to do, to satisfy all the needs we have as a country."

Genachowski closed with the big picture, a perspective of his agency's role and the larger relationship of technology and governance in the 21st century.

"A world where we have universal, ubiquitous high-speed broadband access … changes things. The core goals that we've had as a country… remain the same. The things we've done over the last 200 years to promote these goals have been different, and the things we'll do over the next 200 years to promote them will be different. This requires some of our best and most creative minds to think about how we serve traditional needs in a digital world."

"In most countries in the world, there are two or three or four agencies that do what the FCC does — wires, spectrum allocation, media, international and satellites. We have a single agency that looks all of the above, a converged agency." This, he says, can be a real competitive advantage for the U.S., allowing more coherent, timely decisions and policies that foster, instead of hinder, innovation.

"To do our job right requires multiple skills and backgrounds at the table," he said. "The nature of the issue means we need great engineers, great business folks, people with backgrounds in many disciplines — consumer, academic, business, engineering backgrounds — all around the table discussing the same issue.”

"The goal is to be engaged," he said. "We really believe in the marketplace of ideas, the benefits of full participation in decision-making … It may be bumpy along the way, but we believe it results in better decisions. It's a baseball mentality; you can strike out seven out of 10 times and still make it to the baseball hall of fame."