FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski caught in a net
By Cecilia Kang
Call him what you want (many have garbled his name), but don't call Julius Genachowski an Internet regulator.
That label, in a political environment where regulation of big business often holds particular scorn, is one that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has been fighting to avoid.
But for the federal government's top cop for broadband Internet services, that title tends to stick.
Genachowski (pronounced jen-a-cow-ski) set two key policy goals when he took the job: to bring super-fast Internet connections to every home in America and to make sure those lines were open for any Web site and new software start-up to have a shot at making it in the digital economy.
But those goals have proved just beyond reach, particularly as he tries to carry out them out without stepping too hard on the toes of corporate America.
"Some of the policy tensions we work with are very hard to resolve," Genachowski said in a recent interview. "Getting to an optimal place where we are also driving massive private investment is hard. But that's the job."
One year into his campaign, his agency is weaker than ever, and it's unclear whether he'll be able to be more than the nation's top regulator for plain old phones and broadcast TV. And that's just fine with many companies who think the federal government shouldn't reign over the Web.
There are legal doubts that the agency can regulate broadband and even uncertainty that it can be television's decency cop on curse words and wardrobe malfunctions.
But some critics say the deliberative chairman moves too slowly. He has the backing of his law-school friend, President Obama, as well as a clear three votes in the five-member commission. They also say it's difficult to be a broadband regulator without ruffling feathers.
"An FCC chairman is not supposed to be liked by everyone," said Derek Turner, policy director of public-interest group Free Press. "At some point you've got to make a decision."
Genachowski's staff wrote a thick report for Congress on how to get more broadband connections in the hands of American consumers. But few policies have been announced to make that a reality.
The chairman brought in businesses such as Google, AT&T and Verizon to help form his controversial net neutrality regulation. That didn't work, as an impatient Google and Verizon took over those efforts with their own deal. Those companies and others have poured millions into lobbying campaigns to influence his agenda. He's taken two more months and delayed a vote. All of this has perpetuated the FCC's weakened image.
A failed attempt by Congress this week to create its own net neutrality bill puts the spotlight back on Genachowski, whom Sanford and Bernstein investment analyst Craig Moffett describes as "painted into a corner." He's proposed to reassert the FCC's authority over broadband policy but now must do that in the face of a shifting and less hospitable Congress.
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| October 1, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
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