FCC Chairman Genachowski confident in authority over broadband, despite critics

In a conversation with Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski highlights agency-wide plans to tackle the nation's digital divide.
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Internet service providers are stepping up their campaign to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from regulating them like telephone companies and questioning the limits of the agency's power over the Internet.

Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an interview Tuesday at The Washington Post that he's confident of the agency's authority, and that his focus is on moving ahead with the Obama administration's campaign to bring high-speed Internet to all American homes.

The FCC will present a national broadband plan to Congress in two weeks. Genachowski said he plans to recommend unleashing 500 megahertz of spectrum for the next generation of smartphones, tablet computers and other portable devices that connect people wirelessly to the Web.

But he wouldn't answer whether the FCC is considering a move, urged by some public interest groups, to reclassify broadband service providers -- the companies that provide access to the Web -- so they more clearly fall under the agency's jurisdiction.

A court case involving Comcast's appeal of an FCC ruling has cast doubt over the agency's authority over broadband access providers. Some analysts and public interest groups say that if the agency loses its legal battle, it could be left overseeing only the pre-digital era technologies that are increasingly being abandoned for the Web.

Genachowski said that the agency has clear oversight and will push forward on objectives that affect Internet service providers. The FCC will tell Congress that every home in America can be connected to broadband by 2020 without Congress allocating additional funds, according to sources that have seen the plan. Or Congress could put additional money into a Universal Service Fund to expedite the rollout of broadband services, the sources said.

"We are focused on developing the right policies and the FCC will have the authority to implement the right policies," Genachowski said. "We will argue in court that we have the right."

Opponents of such a move are growing more vocal.

The Technology Policy Institute, a think tank funded by major Internet providers AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, said in comments to the FCC Tuesday that reclassifying broadband into a Title II common carriage service, such as telephone service, would "adversely affect innovation, investment, and consumer welfare, and would undermine the commission's goal of extending broadband penetration, particularly to underserved populations."

The cable industry's top lobbyist, National Cable & Telecommunications Association, on Monday sent a letter to Genachowski saying a reclassification of those communications services isn't necessary.

Last week, AT&T, Verizon, Qwest and NCTA sent a joint letter to Genachowski saying the move would be over-regulatory and inhibit investment in networks. Wall Street analysts say investors would be chilled by a regulatory reclassification that would put broadband services alongside phone services that have a much more rigid regulatory framework.

Meantime, Genachowski said he is keeping his eye on the Obama administration's vision of the bigger picture. Broadband, he said, will be the enabling infrastructure for economic growth and keep the U.S. from falling behind other nations that are developing innovations from the Web.

"Job No. 1 is to get broadband policy right for the country," Genachowski said Tuesday. "As we tackle the awful economy we are in, we are doing it in a way that addresses the challenges of makings sure we are globally competitive."

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