FCC Chief Leaves Broadband Legacy

Julius Genachowski focused on digital updates, wireless expansion efforts

If there was any doubt about the issue that has been the top priority of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski during his tenure atop the regulatory org, he made it perfectly clear in his remarks to staffers on Friday in announcing his departure in the coming weeks.

Pushing the country further into the digital future, with more ubiquitous broadband accessibility and adoption, will likely be his legacy, but throughout his term his ambitious agenda was at times met with contention, compromise and, in certain cases, disappointment. The unveiling in 2010 of a National Broadband Plan, and its call for reallocating broadcast spectrum, almost immediately drew the ire of TV stations. A compromise effort at net neutrality, outlined in a set of open Internet rules, drew lukewarm reaction from consumer advocates who thought they were not robust enough and opposition from some telecom companies who saw them as regulatory overreach. His support for Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal stirred some public interest groups, concerned over the development of video on the web.

But in his remarks, Genachowski focused on end results, noting that “America’s broadband economy is thriving, with record setting private investment; unparalleled innovation in networks, devices and apps; and renewed U.S. leadership around the world.”

He also cited other accomplishments, like an overhaul of the agency’s universal service programs, steps to strengthen cybersecurity and efforts to “drive transparency.” The latter included a requirement that stations post online information about political ad buys, which was passed despite the resistance of broadcasters.

Almost from the start, Genachowski focused on broadband, and via the National Broadband Plan sounded the alarm about a looming spectrum crunch. A never-tried-before plan for incentive auctions, passed last year in Congress, is currently in the formative stage, but has stirred concerns from stations and others over whether it will do what it is set out to do: Free up enough spectrum to meet the future demand for wireless providers.

His successor will oversee the implementation of the auctions, planned for next year, but also may grapple with plans to revise some media ownership rules, including a loosening of provisions on how many outlets a single owner can have in one market. And Genachowski’s agenda also was notable for what it didn’t include: Although he recently hinted that the agency should look at rules governing retransmission consent negotiations, the FCC largely left broadcasters and cable companies alone in the midst of high-profile brinksmanship that left some channels dark. In contrast to his predecessor, Kevin Martin, Genachowski seemed to have little appetite for pursuing a crackdown on broadcast indecency, even though the agency defended the government’s position when cases came before the Supreme Court.

Gordon Smith, CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, reflected the view of many in D.C. when he said that the chairman’s post is “arguably one of the most difficult jobs in Washington,” given all of the competing interests and constituencies, many of which are displeased with one thing or another at any given moment. Smith, himself critical of some of the FCC’s moves, once called the plan for incentive auctions a “spectrum grab.”

In a statement on Friday, Smith said that Genachowski “consistently performed with dedication and focus. We may have disagreed on occasion, but America’s broadcasters wish him well in his journeys ahead.”

Another group that was hardly heaping praise on Genachowski’s tenure was Public Knowledge, one of the most visible media public interest orgs. It called his chairmanship one of “missed opportunities,” saying that he could have taken greater steps to ensure competition and consumer protection in the broadband markets.

David L. Cohen, exec VP of Comcast, said that Genachowski’s “long list of accomplishments have a common theme: bringing the highest caliber of communications technologies to all Americans to ensure the U.S. remains a leader in the global competitive marketplace.”

President Obama also focused on Genachowski’s broadband agenda in a statement released by the White House. “Because of his leadership, we have expanded high-speed Internet access, fueled growth in the mobile sector, and continued to protect the open Internet as a platform for entrepreneurship and free speech,” Obama said.

Genachowski was selected by Obama, a classmate at Harvard Law School, to lead the agency in 2009, and the new FCC chief brought a varied background in show business and media, as well as a tenure on the agency staff in the 1990s. Genachowski was an executive at Barry Diller’s various companies from 1997 through 2005, and later worked in the venture capital world as the co-founder of LaunchBox Digital and Rock Creek Ventures.

His departure was expected, as previous FCC chairmen have departed just after a president’s new term. For months in Washington, there has been a guessing game focused on possible successors, with one of the leading candidates floated being Tom Wheeler, managing director at Core Capital Partners and former president of the National Cable Television Assn. and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn. Others said to be in the running include Karen Kornbluh, ambassador and permanent representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Catherine J.K. Sandoval, a former FCC official who is currently a member of the California Public Utilities Commission.

One of Genachowski’s fellow commissioners, Robert McDowell, a Republican, earlier this week announced that he was stepping down. That could help with the Senate confirmation process of whoever the next chair is, as the White House could send two nominees from each party to Capitol Hill for approval.

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