SAN FRANCISCO — A pivotal regulatory agency is poised for a subtle but significant shift as incoming President Barak Obama prepares to appoint his law school friend Julius Genachowski to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. This five-member agency regulates the convergence of traditional and new media at a time of profound change.
Genachowski would bring a unique perspective to the post, starting with his service as chief counsel to the FCC during the Clinton administration. Genachowski has also worked for Internet entrepreneur Barry Diller and, more recently, has run his own venture capital firm, LaunchBox Digital.
"Julius would be the very first nominee ever for FCC who had previously been a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur and a tech executive,'' according to former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, who was Genachowski's boss and mentor in the Clinton era.
Assuming Senate confirmation, Genachowski would come to the FCC with an unusual degree of access to the chief executive. The two men have been friends since their days at the Harvard Law Review. Genachowski raised money for Obama's presidential run and helped refine his Internet campaign strategy. At a time when Obama has marked the Internet as one of his infrastructure priorities, Genachowski's access and experience would make him a potent policymaker – and one who would be expected to share the new administration's open-access philosophy on issues like network neutrality.
In professional background and political leanings, Genachowski contrasts to Kevin Martin, the Republican stalwart appointed by Bush. Martin has said he will resign after Obama's inauguration to let the new president put his own stamp on the agency.
Although Martin reflected the Bush administration's opposition to network neutrality, he did support a greater openness in the cellular phone network and was relentless in trying to rein in the cable industry. Martin also drove the FCC to allow Internet service providers to use the "white spaces" in the radio spectrum – the old buffer zones between broadcast channels -- to deliver wireless broadband. In a rare display of international leadership, Martin asked the FCC to help regulators outside the United States create similar white space policies – over the objections of broadcasters fearful that Internet signals will interfere with high-definition broadcasts.
In short, Martin began to push the FCC toward open networks, a policy Genachowski will likely continue with greater vigor. The United States now ranks 15th in broaband Internet according to an assessment based on an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development analysis. Until recently the FCC had defined broadband as any speed above 200 kilobits per second, which was considered laughable in the Internet industry. Martin had begun to move the agency toward a more realistic definition, in line with a growing consensus, spanning political and industrial divides, that the United States needs a new and improved national broadband policy.
Genachowski will have the mandate to leap beyond Martin's tentative steps and make good on the Obama administration's pledge to bolster broadband access, especially in sparsely populated rural areas. But first Genachowski may be called upon to reverse Martin's planned shift to high-definition television transmission. Obama recently asked Congress for a second time to delay the February 17th switch to give consumers with analog antennas more time to get ready.
With Genachowski so closely aligned to the Internet camp, Obama may be seeking someone with a telecommunications and high-tech pedigree to serve as his new chief technology officer. In recent days Cisco technologist Padmasree Warrior has emerged as a candidate for White House CTO. In addition to the symbolic value of appointing a woman, she would offer a technological and political balance. Cisco has been allied with telephone and cable interests on network neutrality, and Cisco chief executive John Chambers tilts toward Republican politics.
Warrior is an Indian-American, as are two other men who are also rumored nominees for the post – Vivek Kundra, who is chief technology officer of the Washington, D.C. municipal administration, and Aneesh Chopra, who is secretary of technology in Virginia.
Rounding out the field for a post that has proven challenging to fill is John Thompson, an African-American executive from Silicon Valley who backed the Obama campaign and has won plaudits from Democratic lawmakers.
Genachowski may have been an easy choice for Obama. Now his caution in choosing a White House tech advisor underscores his appreciation for the politics of technology.