What's So Funny About the FCC's Failures?

On Thursday night at the Washington Hilton, communications lawyers, media industry lobbyists, tech policy wonks and a few beat reporters will gather for the FCC Chairman's Dinner — an annual night of backslapping and inside jokes where the head of the Federal Communications Commission gives a "funny" speech zinging his colleagues and critics.

The event will almost certainly be the last time Julius Genachowski, the FCC's current chief, takes the stage. He's expected to step down as soon as a replacement can be nominated and confirmed, and the dinner is a major stop on a farewell tour designed to shore up his legacy.

Politico and the Washington Post recently ran soft-focus features on Genachowski's reign, but almost nobody in Washington would say anything critical on the record.

Here's the truth: Genachowski may pride himself on playing the "compromiser in chief," but his tenure has been a series of major disappointments for those expecting real change.

In its profile, the Post portrays Genachowski as a card shark at the poker table, but his strategy at the FCC has been to fold, fold, fold whenever industry comes calling.

The one time he went all-in against a major player was when the agency blocked the AT&T/T-Mobile merger. But he was holding aces then in the form of the antitrust lawsuit the Justice Department had already filed against AT&T.

When Politico asked Genachowski to name his crowning achievement, the chairman simply said "broadband" — as if we'd all be communicating through tin cans and string without his leadership.

Yet his National Broadband Plan was the first sign we were dealing with a serial capitulator. The document failed to confront the biggest obstacle to providing world-class broadband in America: the lack of meaningful competition.

Genachowski touts the FCC as a "data-driven" agency, but he's failed to move a three-year-old proposed rule to collect accurate data about the broadband market. You can't fix what you don't measure.

And his supposedly brave effort to reform the Universal Service Fund actually raised rates for consumers instead of cutting down on corporate fraud and waste.

Plus, instead of boosting new wireless technologies, Genachowski pushed a so-called incentive auction that could freeze out innovation while awarding more valuable spectrum to companies like AT&T and Verizon.

Worst of all, Genachowski missed the opportunity to reverse failed Bush administration policies and "reclassify" broadband under the Telecommunications Act. Doing so would have ensured the FCC's authority to protect consumers from corporate malfeasance. But once again, Genachowski bowed to industry pressure — and did nothing.

This failure to act leaves FCC lawyers with a weak hand as they now try to defend the agency's Net Neutrality rules before a hostile D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Those rules are so watered down that even AT&T endorsed them, but Verizon still sued to have them overturned.

If, as most observers expect, the agency loses the case, it could leave the FCC and even Congress without the authority to make rules or laws protecting the open Internet or regarding broadband access. Talk about a legacy.

Genachowski's actions on media ownership are even more inexplicable. After ignoring the issue for four years, he's suddenly rushing to eliminate the longstanding rules that limit how much media one company can own in a single market.

His proposal is indistinguishable from the one the Bush administration pushed — a failed scheme that was opposed in 99 percent of public comments, rejected by the Senate, and later tossed out in court. Among the policy's most fervent opponents last time around: a junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

Adding insult to injury, Genachowski is asking his fellow commissioners to adopt this deeply unpopular idea behind closed doors. Such a move should be unthinkable, but it speaks to Genachowski's greatest failing: He doesn't think it's his responsibility to face, let alone serve, the public.

Unlike his recent Republican predecessors, Genachowski has not attended a single public hearing where he took questions from an open microphone. His outside-the-Beltway activities have mainly consisted of CEO meet-and-greets and industry trade shows. He sees no problem with conducting agency business in secret because he believes his only job is to referee corporate disputes.

The FCC has long been captured by the industries it's supposed to regulate, cornered by the courts, and constrained by a hopelessly narrow vision of what's possible. And the current chairman has made all of these problems worse.

Is Genachowski the worst FCC chairman ever? Well, there was once a guy who saw no difference between televisions and toasters, so the bar is pretty low. But it's hard to think of someone else who squandered as many opportunities at a more critical moment for the future of the media, the Internet and the agency itself.

Saying such a thing out loud is a grievous breach of D.C. decorum, where regulators and those they're supposed to regulate gather over drinks on nights like tonight. But it must be said, because the Obama administration will have to choose a new FCC chairman soon — and the public just can't risk another chairman like this one.

And that's no joke.

Original photo by Flickr user Eric Bridiers

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