As Communications Media Grow, FCC's New Chief Envisions an Updated Agency

Chairman Julius Genachowski wants the agency to harness cutting-edge technological advances such as running applications over the Internet.
Chairman Julius Genachowski wants the agency to harness cutting-edge technological advances such as running applications over the Internet. (By Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

Julius Genachowski, President Obama's pick to lead the Federal Communications Commission, has a soft spot for the little guy.

In his first interview since taking over the federal agency, Genachowski talked about the importance of "edge" Internet and software companies in pushing forward technological advances. He suggested that these companies might play a key role in boosting the economy and in helping the agency meet its mandate to bring high-speed Internet access to all Americans.

"That's where the greatest innovation is," he said. "What is interesting to me is to find ways to work with early-stage innovators to build from the edge and work on tomorrow's ideas."

The 46-year-old former venture capitalist offered few specifics on how he would bring those entrepreneurs into an agency that is still grappling with arcane policies on sharing telephone wires and the distribution of radio broadcast licenses. And he did not weigh in on some of the most vexing issues confronting the FCC, including complaints about exclusive wireless partnerships such as the one AT&T and Apple forged with the iPhone.

But he touted the role of high-tech and telecom startups and smaller competitors in creating jobs as the administration pushes to bring broadband access to the nation.

"I've seen innovation and job creation happen on the platform, on the edge of the platform and in the cloud," Genachowski said, using techspeak to refer to computers, handhelds and other mobile devices and Web-based applications.

Genachowski has experience working with such firms. He founded the Washington-area startup incubator LaunchBox Digital and was a former executive at Barry Diller's Internet firm IAC/Interactive, which is constantly on the prowl for new ventures.

He also worked previously in the FCC, serving as general counsel to Chairman Reed Hundt, among other roles.

That background has "helped me see how government can make a difference by creating a climate for competition and innovation," he said.

Genachowski met Obama in law school, where the two became friends. When Obama decided to run for president, it was Genachowski who helped persuade the campaign team to invest early in a Web site that used social media such as YouTube, Facebook and text-messaging to promote the candidate.

He takes over at an FCC that once seemed preoccupied with policing wardrobe malfunctions and bad language on the airwaves. These days, debate is growing over whether small high-tech and telecom firms can compete effectively in a marketplace dominated by the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), for instance, recently sent a letter to Genachowski and the head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, calling for a number of reforms to break up that concentration of power.

Genachowski said the agency is reviewing some of those issues, including whether exclusive handset deals between companies such as AT&T and Apple, or Sprint Nextel and Palm, have edged out competitors. Also pending is a review of a petition by Internet voice service Skype to stop network operators such as AT&T from blocking it on their networks.

Analysts say Genachowski will be pressed to solve those problems quickly amid a stubborn recession where policies at the FCC could sharply change the landscape of the wireless, telecom and high-tech industries -- which currently make up one of the more resilient sectors of the economy.

"How to balance the private-sector concern and public concerns is what the FCC chairman is called to do," said William E. Kennard, a former FCC chairman who worked with Genachowski as a campaign and transition adviser to Obama. "What Julius brings to the table is an understanding of both worlds and that doesn't have to be inconsistent. But you have to strike a good balance."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company