Based on recent statements, it’s hard to tell whose angrier at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its Chair, Julius Genachowski: AT&T’s Upper Management or the House Commerce Committee Republicans. Mere mention of Genachowski’s name converts House Commerce Committee Republicans, such as Telecom Subcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR), from urbane sophisticated legislators into sputtering mad parodies of Elmer Fudd. “Oooh that wascally Chaiwman! Always wegulating the fwee market! I’ll fix his wagon!” Meanwhile, AT&T CEO Randal Stephenson devoted the main part of his recent earnings call to repeating variations on “Juliuth, you’re desthpicable.”
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski has a spectrum politics problem problem. On the one hand, he learned from last year’s D Block battle that he needs to stay aggressively on message to sell his spectrum reforms. His every speech on spectrum therefore reads like a campaign speech for incentive auctions. ‘We have a looming spectrum crisis, we need bold action, Congress must act now to pass incentive auctions.’ But, as Genachowski has discovered, this approach can have unintended consequences. Recently, Commissioner Robert McDowell reported that this focus on incentive auctions created uncertainty in Silicon Valley over the FCC’s commitment to the TV white spaces (TVWS). This follows earlier concerns from Senator Snowe (R-ME) and others that the Chairman’s exclusive public focus on incentive auctions invariably means giving short shrift to other, equally important spectrum reforms identified in the National Broadband Plan.
Genachowski moved quickly to reaffirm that support for TVWS remains strong and that TVWS is a big part of the FCC’s spectrum for broadband initiative. Further, the inclusion of several spectrum items for the next open FCC meeting shows that Genachowski remains committed to broad spectrum reform. But these incidents underscore Genachowski’s difficult dilemma. How can he campaign to push through incentive auctions on the one hand, while making sure that other aspects of the spectrum reform agenda receive the prominence and attention they need to move forward? The fact that anyone could doubt the FCC’s continuing commitment to developing the TVWS despite its broad bipartisan support and support from the Obama Administration spectrum team underscores how little it takes to undermine confidence even in reforms already accomplished.
Commissioner Meredith Baker may hold the solution to Chairman Genachowski’s spectrum politics dilemma. Genachowski should appoint Commissioner Baker chair of the reconstituted Spectrum Task Force. At the moment, the Spectrum Task Force is co-chaired by Julie Knapp (Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology) and Ruth Milkman (Chief of the Wireless Bureau). In an ideal world, having two such extraordinarily qualified experts and Bureau Chiefs heading the Spectrum Task Force would be enough to show that Genachowski is not neglecting spectrum reform outside incentive auctions. But in status-conscious Washington DC, the sad truth is that only a Commissioner can give the Spectrum Task Force the “star power” it needs to reassure everyone that serious work continues along multiple fronts.
More below . . . .
Last night, the wonkiest corner of telecom policy experienced its 15 picoseconds of fame when President Obama invoked spectrum policy in his State of the Union (SOTU) Address. In nerdness terms, this would be like James Franco and Anne Hathaway pausing before the Best Picture Oscar to announce this year’s Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.
Needless to say, I am uber-pleased to have the geekiest of Presidents acknowledge the wonkiest of my issues. But does it do any actual good? I explore this below . . . .
“The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem.” So goes the self-help cliché. For regulatory agencies, the first step is admitting that industry has a problem and that the wonderful happy world of the unregulated market – no matter how wildly competitive it might or might not be – doesn’t always protect consumers and that in fact, sometimes, free market dogma to the contrary, you actually reach the best result for everyone by having government set basic rules of disclosure and enforcement (the classic paper on this being George Akerlof’s oft-cited “The Market For Lemons”). The recent experience with the meltdown of the financial services sector and its ongoing tribulations provide rather vivid proof that “trusting the market” and waiting for “proof of a problem.”
Which brings me to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s latest app release for Genachowski 2.0 – the Relaunch. With network neutrality on the backburner until after the election, Genachowski has taken the opportunity to get the agency on track with its substantive agenda. In addition to moving forward for the second month in a row on significant National Broadband Plan Items (White Spaces last month, CableCARD and Mobility Fund this month), Genachowski has started taking the FCC in the welcome direction of consumer protection.
I occasionally suspect my colleagues in the Public Interest community lack a sense of humor — although perhaps it is simply that I am in a more relaxed frame of mind after my annual vacation from the 21st Century. I am neither surprised nor outraged at the recent news that members of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) are picking up where the FCC “secret meetings” left off and trying to come up with a net neutrality consensus framework. To me, it seems rather sad and funny. My only surprise is that even in Washington, the notion of an industry trade association working with its members is anything unusual or significant. I mean, that’s what industry trade associations do after all.
The sad thing is that, given the utter genius the Obama Administration has shown for pissing off the Democratic base through constant waivering, there is every reason to believe that the FCC might be tempted to view what comes out of this “industry consensus process” as something it can embrace to its bosom. This would be a disaster not merely for Genachowski and what remains of his reputation, but for Congressional Democrats as well. If there is one unequivocal lesson that came out of the Goog-VZ debacle last week, it is that the Netroots care deeply about this issue. While I get that the DC establishment considers the Netroots something of an embarrassment (or, as Rahm Emmanuel famously opined, “bleeping retarded”), Congressional Democrats understand that unless the Netroots (a) keep giving money, and (b) turn out and vote, they are toast — as evidenced by Alan Grayson’s abrupt about face from his previous “let Congress handle it in our own sweet time” to “Congress and the FCC must step up now.”
More below . . . .