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For FCC chief, a frustrating disconnect

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (Joshua Roberts/bloomberg)
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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.

"This is a big moment in communications and we can really screw things up royally unless the chairman and the commission has an image of where they want that field to go," said Dave Farber, a former chief technologist for the FCC, who thinks the agency doesn't need a net neutrality rule.

For those who want broadband regulation, the window of opportunity is closing for Genachowski to get his controversial proposals through - such as reforming an $8 billion phone fund to include broadband subsidies to rural areas. Those advocates of net neutrality say he has to pursue a politically unpopular plan to re-regulate broadband through a process that would place high-speed Internet in the same category as common carrier services like plain old telephone.

"The chairman used his first years to articulate his vision for America's broadband future," said Genachowski's former senior adviser Colin Crowell, who recently left his job to start a high-tech consulting firm, Crowell Strategies. "The FCC's job in the coming months will be to make the tough but crucially important decisions required to implement the plan."

Hard-fought efforts

In his office at the FCC, Genachowski talked about his ongoing "commitment to a free and open Internet." But the former venture capitalist and agency legal counsel during the Clinton administration offered no details on whether he will implement a policy on that goal in the coming weeks or months.

He disagreed with critics who question his accomplishments.

Genachowski touted his push to make more airwaves available for cellphones, tablets and other wireless gadgets. He promised 500 megahertz of airwaves, which broadcast TV and radio companies had opposed. Last month, the agency approved the use of unlicensed broadcast channels known as "white spaces" that Google and Microsoft hope will turn into Wi-Fi networks on steroids. He said that thanks to his agenda, the nation now thinks think about broadband as a priority and that he's nudged once-resistant companies to compromise on some portions of a net neutrality regulation.

"We got the country's first broadband plan done. It's a terrific plan and widely regarded as a breakthrough ... in respect to broadband thinking that matter, that other countries are looking at," Genachowski said.

When asked how he can be a broadband regulator without clear permission by the courts or law to do so, Genachowski replied that there are "no clean and easy answers." That's why he has taken longer than some critics would like on a proposal to assert the agency's regulatory authority over Internet-service providers.

"Almost everything the FCC does is challenged in court," he said. "There is no clean solution because we have a Communications Act that wasn't written for broadband."

He said complex questions about how net neutrality can be a rule for wireless phones requires more thinking. There needs to be more examination of a pitch by Google and Verizon to allow companies to pay for better delivery of some content on networks.

Those questions, Farber said, should have been looked into more deeply when Genachowski first promised for net neutrality rules one year ago.

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