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FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Ends His Tenure Not With a Bang, but a "Meh"

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, March 22 2013

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski told the commission's staff Friday that he's stepping down in the next few weeks.

His resignation comes after a tumultuous term during which the FCC, fulfilling President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign promise, enacted network neutrality rules; reformed the Universal Service Fund; established national goals to roll out high-speed Internet access; and blocked one major telecommunications merger while allowing another major merger in the media industry.

Genachowski's departure, following Commissioner Robert McDowell's announcement on Wednesday that he would also be on his way out, leaves a two-to-one Democratic majority at the commission. When full, the FCC has five commissioners.

Heading up the lead agency tasked with fostering innovation and the growth of the nation's communications infrastructure has inevitably led to controversy ever since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which anticipated the growth of digital communications over traditional telecom-based communications. And every FCC chief has had to make difficult decisions that would inevitably be challenged in the federal Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, with case law that determines the extent of the agency's authority in the digital age.

Genachowski never generated as much controversy as some of his predecessors, such as former Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell, but news of his departure was greeted with deep ambivalence among many stakeholders.

"I think coming into the position as he did, he was painted as someone who knew the technology world well, and would bring a different mindset to the position than had traditionally been the focus of people who come from the rank and file of Washington, D.C. positions, but I'm not certain that he lived up to that," said Ross Buntrock, a partner at the law firm of Arent Fox in Washington, D.C. "There was a perception that he was going to focus on new technology, and that he was not going to be as tied to the shackles of the traditional Washington, D.C. establishment, but I don't think Julius was any different from anyone else who comes into the job -- you come into it with some grand vision, and then the political realities come home to roost."

Those political realities include the flotillas of long-time telecommunications lobbyists in Washington, D.C. defending the status-quo partisan politics on Capitol Hill, and the high expectations set by President Obama and by Genachowski himself as Obama's technology adviser on the campaign trail.

For example, many left-leaning telecommunications policy experts had called for a national broadband plan during President George H.W. Bush's tenure, which the Obama administration dutifully developed and rolled out — even if one telecommunications expert told techPresident it was "un-visionary" and its chief architect has advocated reversing course from some of its recommendations.

Buntrock applauded Genachowski for hiring consultants and outside analysts to think about how the U.S. should roll out ubiquitous high-speed Internet access, and not just taking the input of vested interests. However, like a lot of other people interviewed for this article, he said it didn't have significant impact.

"I don't think the end product would have been substantially different than it would have been without that process," Buntrock told me.

"At the end of the day, the agency is very politicized, and there are a lot of powerful stakeholders that bring to bear their influence on the outcomes, not just at the FCC, but through the political machines across this city," he said.

And despite listening to left-leaning advocates' calls to enact strict net neutrality rules, Genachowski still came in for criticisms from those quarters.

"When Julius Genachowski took office, there were high hopes that he would use his powerful position to promote the public interest. But instead of acting as the people's champion, he’s catered to corporate interests," charged Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, a nonprofit active on media and telecom issues. “Genachowski claimed broadband was his agency's top priority, but he stood by as prices rose and competition dwindled. He claimed to be a staunch defender of the open Internet, but his Net Neutrality policies are full of loopholes and offer no guarantee that the FCC will be able to protect consumers from corporate abuse in the future."

Similarly, Genchowski came in for a bashing from TechFreedom, a libertarian-leaning think tank.

"His National Broadband Plan offered plenty of reasons for hope, but the Chairman delivered little of the change we needed," said TechFreedom President Berin Szoka in a press statement. "With the support of the equally personable Republican Rob McDowell, Genachowski's legacy could have been progress on a range of issues where broad consensus exists, like eliminating the regulatory barriers that slow down broadband deployment. He succeeded on a few issues, like reforming the bloated high-cost portion of the Universal Service Fund. But he failed to deliver on the greatest opportunities, if only by failing to prioritize non-ideological reforms that, together, could have made a big difference."

Underscoring how many different kinds of stakeholders and interests there are in building out the national communications infrastructure, however, is Buntrock's grievance on behalf of some of his rural telecom clients who he says are going to be "devastated" by Genachowski's USF reforms. The Universal Service Fund was a pot of money established by Congress in 1997 to ensure affordable phone access to every American, even in sparsely populated rural areas that commercial providers would have little incentive for serving. The FCC in recent years reformed the service to reflect modern updates in communications technology. Part of that reform came at the expense of rural carriers who are not receiving the same levels of government subsidies that they previously enjoyed.

"I think his signature achievement in his mind is the reform of the Universal Service program to shift the support from landlines to broadband. My clients, however, are rural constituents who will be devastated by that," he said.

Others players in the space said that Genachowski simply did what any level-headed policymaker would have done in such a highly political position.

"He was a predictable chairman," said Stephen Effros, a former FCC staffer and chief of the Cable Telecommunications Association from his office in Clifton, Va. "He said he would let the data rule the decisions of the commission, and as with most commissioners, once he got in, he chose to let the prevailing interests of his and other people rule his decisions."

Effros cited the commission's rules on net neutrality as an example, saying that the rules were based on scant evidence and fear of something happening, rather than definitive evidence. Nevertheless, he said that "as a general proposition, he was fine," as a leader. "He was reasonable, and let the industry develop."

Under his four-year tenure, Genachowski's commission also tried to keep the wireless industry competitive by blocking AT&T's attempted merger with T-Mobile, and keeping T-Mobile on as a viable fourth alternative. Despite the agency's interventions, the wireless industry's chief praised Genachowski's work.

"I want to express my sincere thanks and appreciation for Chairman Genachowski's leadership at the FCC," said CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent in a public statement. "Julius was instrumental in overseeing the National Broadband Plan and has been a strong voice on spectrum issues and acceleration of broadband infrastructure deployment so that consumers may continue to enjoy the benefits of the wireless ecosystem. Julius recognized early on the benefits of mobile broadband and made it a priority to deliver additional, cleared spectrum to meet consumer demand and maintain U.S. global leadership."

And, of course, his boss gave him a few nice words.

"Over the last four years, Julius has brought to the Federal Communications Commission a clear focus on spurring innovation, helping our businesses compete in a global economy and helping our country attract the industries and jobs of tomorrow," the president said in a statement about the chairman's resignation. "Because of his leadership, we have expanded high-speed internet access, fueled growth in the mobile sector, and continued to protect the open internet as a platform for entrepreneurship and free speech."

One of Silicon Valley's congressional representatives also had high praise for him.

“America is leading the world in scale deployment of next generation mobile networks with tens of billions of dollars in private investment," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) "Innovators will have access to more unlicensed spectrum than ever before, supporting the promise and potential of the wireless technology of tomorrow. The Internet remains a free and open platform for inventiveness and the sharing of ideas. Chairman Genachowski implemented the kind of long-term growth initiatives America’s telecommunications sector needs to compete in the digital age. It was a privilege working with him to advance our common goals.”