At a Washington, D.C., event last month touting family-friendly aspects of the National Broadband Plan, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski faced a pointed question from Elmo, the furry red star of “Sesame Street.”
Elmo wanted to know if “Mr. Julius is a superhero?”
Genachowski was quick to disabuse the Muppet of the notion. But Elmo’s query didn’t seem too off the wall given the whirlwind of activity at the Federal Communications Commission since Genachowski took the reins last June.
He will surely need a few superpowers if he is to steer the FCC through its most ambitious agenda in decades, most notably its blueprint for expanding and upgrading broadband access across the country.
To do so, Genachowski will have to find consensus with every major constituency the FCC governs, from broadcasters and subscription TV providers to telcos and Internet Service Providers — not to mention Congress and other regulatory agencies.
But he is well-suited to the task, according to industry insiders who have worked with him. David Cohen, exec veep of Comcast Corp., says flatly that Genachowski is “the most qualified person ever to be appointed” as FCC boss.
“He brings a great intellect, great experience, tremendous organization and a commitment to run fair, data-driven processes that will underline the decisions the commission makes under his leadership,” said Cohen, who oversees governmental affairs for Comcast and is in the midst of steering its merger with NBC Universal through the FCC review.
Genachowski’s varied background in showbiz and media, coupled with his years as an FCC staffer in the mid-1990s, gives him a good perspective on the real-world impact of regulatory decisions, Cohen and others say. Genachowski was a senior biz and legal exec for Barry Diller’s various companies from 1997 through 2005. He later worked in the venture capital world as the co-founder of LaunchBox Digital and Rock Creek Ventures, both of which focused on providing seed money to tech- and media-oriented startups.
And perhaps his biggest asset in Washington is his tight relationship with President Obama, who was a classmate of Genachowski at Harvard Law School in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Genachowski worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and spearheaded the candidate’s focus on broadband expansion and net neutrality as pillars of his telecom policy agenda.
“He understands the delicate balance of pursuing an important policy agenda but maintaining a balance in the way that agenda would impact businesses and business investment,” Cohen said.
On Tuesday, Genachowski ventured into the turf of the sector most wary of aspects of the broadband plan, among other FCC initiatives, when he addressed the National Assn. of Broadcasters’ confab in Las Vegas.
Broadcasters are concerned about provisions of the plan that call for what could be dramatic changes in the allocation of broadcast spectrum — changes meaning that broadcasters are being urged to give back some of spectrum currently licensed to TV stations. And broadcasters are perturbed by the push from cable and satellite operators for the FCC to make policy changes in response to the growing number of retransmission consent negotiation battles between station owners and cable operators.
Genachowski has staked much of his own legacy as FCC boss on the implementation of the National Broadband Plan. In his comments to Congress and industry orgs, he’s cast the issue in urgent terms of the need to shore up the U.S.’s lagging status in broadband usage and penetration rates compared to other developed countries. And he has repeatedly warned of a looming crisis as insufficient systems are overloaded by demand as more consumers wield SmartPhones and other data-hungry devices.
“Many believe there is no bigger opportunity for the United States than leading the world in mobile innovation,” Genachowski told the NAB crowd. “Mobile Internet access can be not only a powerful platform for substantial 21st century job and business creation, but also a critical part of the solution to pressing national challenges like education, health care, energy, and public safety,” he said.
Broadcasters are wary that the broadband plan’s call for stations to voluntarily give back some of their spectrum will turn into an involuntary confiscation by the FCC if they can’t scare up enough from other sources.
Assuaging broadcaster concerns is just one of dozens of items on the FCC’s to-do list to implement the plan. Last week, the commission released a sked of an eye-popping 60 rulemaking, public notice and comment periods that it will undertake through the rest of the year.
Genachowski, who also served stints as a law clerk for Supreme Court justices David Souter and William J. Brennan and as a Congressional aide, has the wonk credentials to see it through. In advocating for the National Broadband Plan, he’s as comfortable bantering in front of kids and kidvid advocates with Elmo (“Elmo is tired of buffering” the Muppet told the crowd in support of the plan) as he is talking about the finer points of the nation’s megabits and megahertz needs.
“The three main things you need to do the job (of FCC chief) is know the law, have a pretty good understanding of the technological trends and lastly, have a good head for business,” said former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, for whom Genachowski served as a chief counsel. “Julius is the only FCC chair who has come into the job with such a high level of understanding on all three scales.”