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It’s A Whole New Telecom Team in Washington

January 14, 2009 , ,

There is a lot of the buzz in Washington about the selection of Julius Genachowski to be the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Genachowski's expected appointment, while significant, is still one-third of the new telecom line-up that includes three new chairmen in the Senate and House. The result of these seismic changes will be the landscape will be shifting (in some places more than others) beneath the feet of the industries which have heavily influenced the mechanisms of power for so long.

Genachowski went to law school with Barack Obama, worked on the Harvard Law Review and shot hoops with the president-elect. He is the former chief counsel to then-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, and so was integral to the Commission at the dawn of internet technology. He also went on to work with Barry Diller at IAC and then helped to fund new companies. Clearly, he is someone who understands telecommunications law, the Washington telecom landscape, the technology and the business. Genachowski advised the Obama campaign on telecom policy, and the campaign produced a sophisticated, forward-looking document that hit all the right notes – a free and open Internet, a central place for technology in government policy, transparency in government.

With Genachowski’s background, he could have any job he chose. If his first choice was the FCC, it was his job to lose. If anything, the Obama campaign and now the transition team have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to telecom and Internet policy. You could staff the entire agency and executive branch with learned, experienced, public-interest minded Obama supporters from the telecom world. (Full disclosure – even I was mentioned for an FCC position.)

If Genachowski uses the transition’s technology policy as his guiding principles, and there is little reason to think he wouldn’t, then the “change” mantra will definitely be in force at the FCC. It will be welcome, as there hasn’t been this much high-level interest in technology since the Clinton/Gore years when the White House staff was intimately involved with telecom policy.

Genachowski will be the pivotal, but not only piece, in the Great Telecom Turnover of 2009. The changes will be as great on Capitol Hill, also promising a new era of opportunity. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA), taking over the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), taking over the House Communications Subcommittee, each represent the struggling area of Appalachia. They are well familiar with universal service, connectivity and economic development issues vital to their parts of the world.

Rockefeller Takes Senate Panel

Rockefeller, taking over a committee that has been largely moribund for the past couple of years, has a long history of commitment to universal service. As one of the lead sponsors of the Snowe-Rockefeller-Exon-Kerrey amendment to the 1996 Telecom Act, he helped to create the E-rate program that has brought thousands of schools, libraries and rural health centers online. Since then, Rockefeller has expressed frustration at the FCC’s administration of the universal service program, at one point delaying confirmation of Commissioner Robert McDowell to highlight his displeasure with the agency.

He has also shown he can stand up to the telephone companies. He said at a hearing on universal service last year that, in contrast to the views of the telecom companies that the Internet isn’t regulated, there are plenty of regulations on the Internet now ranging from 9-1-1 access to the E-rate, opening the way for a free and non-discriminatory Internet.

On the other hand, Rockefeller, as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, earned the enmity of many in the activity community by acceding to the demand by the large telecommunications companies for immunity from prosecution over their wiretapping without a warrant. How he balances the demands of the telecom companies versus the public interest and the Obama agenda will be one of the big keys to measuring the success of a Rockefeller chairmanship.

Boucher and Waxman Reshape House

In the House, the departures of former Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) and Telecom Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA) from their respective posts create the opportunities for an entirely new dynamic. Dingell and Markey honed their relationship over decades often in opposition to one another, as Dingell sided with local phone companies, while Markey looked out for the competitive side of the industry. The two have been more in sync in the last couple of years, particularly on Net Neutrality.

Now there is a new committee chairman, Henry Waxman (D-CA), who has relatively little experience in telecom issues, to work with Boucher, who is as knowledgeable as any legislator, and more knowledgeable and expert than most when it comes to the Internet and telecom.

First elected in 1982, Boucher helped to create the satellite TV industry in the early 1980s an effort, like universal service, that started his work to bring rural areas more into the economic mainstream. That aim continues today. Through the telecom wars of the early 1990s, he tended to side more with the Bell companies than with long-distance companies like AT&T and MCI, arguing that those companies were the ones best equipped to bring advanced services to rural areas. With the demise of the independent long-distance industry, Boucher has focused on universal service and Internet issues. While policymakers discuss whether the Universal Service Fund should be reconfigured to support broadband deployment, Boucher and Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) proposed that change in 2005. With Boucher in the right place, maybe now that idea will get some traction.

Boucher is as responsible for anyone for creating the conditions to allow the Internet to develop into the commercial and innovation powerhouse that it has become. At one point some years back, he was a one-man Congressional Tech Central, sitting on the Commerce, Judiciary and Science committees. (He has since dropped the Science assignment.) It was his 1992 legislation that took the Internet out of the exclusive domain of academia and opened it for commercial traffic. Boucher has never claimed to “invent” the Internet, so let’s not start that, but, like Al Gore, he did play a large legislative role in shaping it. That role continues today, through his advocacy for a non-discriminatory Internet, as does his interest in protecting technological innovation by reforming copyright law and protecting fair use.

Genachowski, Rockefeller and Boucher are starting out largely on the same page of some key issues. All three will have to keep that focus in order for the progressive Obama agenda to become reality.