By Kim Hart - 09/09/09 10:00 AM EDT
Julius Genachowski has an Amazon Kindle in his office. The new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman keeps it next to the dictionary he inherited from his predecessors — one so dated it doesn’t include the words “Internet” or “broadband.”
“We needed an upgrade,” said Genachowski, 47, who has been hailed as the agency’s most tech-savvy chairman in decades. But his interest in the high-tech arena goes well beyond gadgets and has some industry giants eying his moves nervously, wondering what’s next on his upgrading list.
He’s spent the past month on a “listening tour” of the agency, meeting with every staffer and seeing where the agency needs upgrades.
He’s old friends with President Barack Obama, who also has a soft spot for technology — most notably his well-documented relationship with a BlackBerry.
Genachowski’s appreciation for technology signals a new direction for an agency that for so long has focused on copper phone lines and keeping the airwaves free of profanity.
“This agency should be a 21st-century agency for the communications age,” Genachowski said in an interview with The Hill. “Its own communication infrastructure should be of a sort that allows it to do its job, and it’s not. We need to move from a disjointed, disconnected internal data management system to one where people around the agency can easily access the facts and data they need to do their jobs.”
One of Genachowski’s most pressing priorities is to develop a strategy for expanding high-speed Internet service to underserved areas of the country.
The blueprint for that plan is due to Congress in February. The FCC hosted 23 workshops on the issue in August.
The probe of the wireless industry could play a role in that plan. Genachowski says he sees “enormous potential” for wireless services to help push broadband into hard-to-reach regions. He also said he will look into whether valuable airwaves — the underpinnings of wireless technologies — are being used in the most efficient ways.
That has implications for the cell phone companies, which say they need more airwaves to roll out better services. But Genachowski has also signaled that he hopes to encourage new entrants to the wireless industry, which could mean airwaves would be open for a wide range of companies to use, rather than licensed to cell phone companies.
“None of these things lend themselves to easy answers,” Genachowski said. “That’s why we are focusing on the facts and data, asking what kinds of policies best promote innovation and competition.”
CTIA, the wireless industry’s main lobbying association, is responding to the FCC’s questions and is excited about the chairman’s interest in technology.
“I think it bodes well for the sector that we have a chairman who knows technology,” said John Walls, CTIA vice president of public affairs. “Not that we’ll be in lockstep agreement with him 100 percent of the time. … We’ll have some bumps along the way and respectful disagreements.”
It is Genachowski’s second stint at the FCC. After graduating from Harvard Law School, where he and Obama worked on the Law Review and played basketball together, Genachowski clerked for Supreme Court Justice David Souter and became a senior legal adviser to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt during the Clinton administration.
He then went to the private sector as a senior executive at IAC, Barry Diller’s e-commerce company. He’s also tried his hand as a venture capitalist and start-up adviser.
In recent years, as the leading Internet strategist for Obama’s presidential campaign, his ideas on technology reached millions. Genachowski took advantage of YouTube, Facebook and online donations to make the campaign perhaps the most tech-savvy ever. He later served as the top tech adviser on the transition team and was a key architect of Obama’s technology policy agenda.
Now Genachowski is under pressure not only to carry out Obama’s technology agenda, but also to address a number of unresolved issues from the previous administration.
He inherited an agency under congressional investigation for mismanagement. The Government Accountability Office criticized the agency’s former chairman, Kevin J. Martin, for potentially misusing data.
Genachowski has made a point to emphasize the importance of being a “data-driven” agency that makes “fact-based” decisions.
His deliberate, no-surprises approach, friends say, comes from his experience in the business world.
“What ‘data-driven’ really means is that he’ll be well-informed, impartial and predictable,” said Hundt, Genachowski’s former boss at the FCC. “That’s bad news for the usual way of lobbying. Now it’s about what you know, not who you know. He wants these companies to be investing, not lobbying.”
But there is danger in taking the data-driven approach to an extreme, say some public interest groups who are growing impatient while the commission collects data and ideas.
Others say examining data is the right strategy, even if decisions take longer.
Apart from the president’s confidence, Genachowski has allies on Capitol Hill. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) has called for reforms to break up the concentration of power in the wireless industry. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a bill that would prohibit Internet service providers from discriminating against content or services, a principle known as net neutrality. Genachowski has reiterated his own support of net neutrality.
He may face resistance from fellow commissioners. Meredith Atwell Baker and Robert M. McDowell, the agency’s Republican commissioners, applauded the wireless review but cautioned against too much government intervention in an industry that is already thriving.
“The technology landscape is moving so quickly that questions about what sets of policies are more conducive to innovation are hard, complex questions,” Genachowski said. “This is one of the great challenges the FCC has.”
Kevin Bogardus contributed to this article.