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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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"There needs to be a technologist in all those discussions, who is on the eighth floor all the time," Farber said, referring to the chairman's office.

Genachowski said he's reviewing the issues that annoy consumers most - rising penalties to break cell phone contracts and exclusive partnerships between carriers and phone makers such as AT&T and Apple, with its iPhone. More than one year ago he promised lawmakers during a confirmation hearing that he would inspect those complaints that flood the agency each year. No rules have been made or companies penalized. His senior staff say using the "bully pulpit" through probing questions in letters to companies has helped consumers.

But getting people and companies to think like him may not be enough, public interest groups say.

"He has talked a lot and asked for lots of comments, but he has to know time is running out and that he has until the end of the year to solve this authority issue or else he won't be able to do much of anything else," said Gigi Sohn, president of the media reform group Public Knowledge and a vocal early supporter.

His defenders, however, say he's taking a smart approach and building consensus. His former boss, Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/Interactive, said the FCC chairman has persuaded Internet service providers to compromise. Diller supports net neutrality rules that would ensure sites like his, such as Match.com and Evite, would not be unfairly disadvantaged by competitors on the Web. (Diller is a Washington Post Co. director.)

"He's doing things in a way to get something done, whether through parties coming to their own solution or through an actual rule," Diller said.

Data for every guest

Genachowski's office is pristine, with lush eggshell couches and a large glass candy bowl full of USB-port key chains containing agency data for guests.

On a recent day, Genachowski was preparing for a trip to the Computer Museum in Silicon Valley to deliver a speech on allowing schools and libraries to lease unused fiber lines for cheap Internet access.

"I get really excited imagining what we can do in the future with broadband," he said. That order was approved last week, but it is unclear how schools and libraries would tap those fiber connections and who would administer auctions to supply services. Those kinds of details could turn Genachowski's ambition into mush, public interest groups and carriers say.

Few people say they know the FCC chairman well. He rarely veers off message and keeps his thinking close to the vest, say executives, lobbyists and FCC staffers who interact with him. Senior staff steeped with technology policy knowledge have recently left.

And some industry insiders who declined to speak on the record to protect their ongoing relationship with the chairman, said Genachowski doesn't get deeply into the details of telecom policy.

His predecessor, Kevin J. Martin, who was known as a lawyerly FCC chairman, "got his hands dirty" on the legal issues, according to public interest advocate Marvin Ammori, a former adviser for Free Press.

On two visits by a reporter, Martin could be found pouring through piles of legal documents littering the floors and his desk. Dog-eared, smudged and highlighted, the papers were Martin's reference sheets during conversations, where he would hop between piles to look up technical details and legal arguments on arcane telecom issues such as wholesale leasing of phone lines in rural areas.

Martin left with few supporters because of his controversial style and politics. He didn't succeed on major goals like breaking up cable bundling of channels for a la carte offerings. But some of his critics note the Republican chairman did more in his tenure on net neutrality - a largely Democratic issue - than Genachowski.

He auctioned choice radio airwaves with a condition that one swath be open for any device and software. He ordered the release of White Spaces, unlicensed long-range radio frequencies known as Wi-Fi on steroids, with similar conditions. Martin ordered sanctions against Comcast for allegedly blocking BitTorrent files from being shared between users on its network.

"Julius Genachowski has talked a lot about net neutrality but when it comes to actually getting things done, actual orders, you have to hand it to Kevin Martin," said Ammori, a professor of communications law and the University of Nebraska. Ammori and other other public interest advocates filed a complaint to the FCC about Comcast's alleged actions.

Former FCC chairman Reed Hundt said it is too early to judge Genachowski's tenure. He inherited an agency just before a precipitous economic downturn that has hampered his efforts.

"Universal broadband, net neutrality, these were things that weren't even teed up by the Bush administration," said Hundt, who served during the Clinton administration. "Julius Genachowski has changed the conversation, and that is a major accomplishment in this environment."


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