People + Policy
= Positive Change for the Public Good
In announcing his departure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski said: "The last four years have demonstrated that the country needs an effective FCC."
The FCC's decisions are at the heart of our ability to communicate. The agency oversees sectors of the economy responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity and millions of jobs.
The impact of FCC rulings far outlasts the commissioners who make them. FCC policies from the 1960s led to the creation of the Internet; decisions being made now threaten the Internet's future.
Over the past four years, Genachowski focused on broadband to the near-total exclusion of all other issues. But his actions consisted primarily of cheerleading industry players and taking credit for marketplace developments that would have happened anyway.
When he took the helm, most consumers had at best two choices for home broadband: the local phone company or the local cable company. Four years later, we have the same two choices — only now they cost more.
While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama promised to "take a back seat to no one in my commitment to Net Neutrality." But Obama's FCC chair wilted under pressure from big providers like AT&T and Comcast, scrapping stronger Net Neutrality protections in favor of loophole-ridden half-measures that offer too little protection for consumers or innovators.
Genachowski's failure to re-establish the FCC's authority over broadband was his most significant policy blunder — and the defining moment of his tenure. When a federal court ruling exposed the shortsighted folly of the Bush administration's decision to change how the FCC regulates broadband, Genachowski should have moved immediately to "reclassify" broadband under the law. But he retreated under a predictable but fact-free industry backlash. In that moment, corporations learned just how easy Genachowski was to push around.
Fold, Fold and Fold Again
Even on matters that should have been easy lifts, Genachowski found a way to buckle. He released the National Broadband Plan to much fanfare. But he never collected meaningful broadband data — the plan's first and most basic recommendation. This failure didn't stop Genachowski from crowing in nearly every speech about how he was making the agency "data driven."
When Genachowksi's FCC did act on consumer issues, it generally did nothing more than bless industry's toothless and voluntary codes of conduct on issues like "bill shock." To his credit, Genachowski did oppose the AT&T/T-Mobile merger — though he spoke out only after the Department of Justice filed suit to stop the deal. And he still pushed the wireless industry's self-serving notion of a looming "spectrum crunch" when the real problem is the absence of real competition in the market.
One of Genachowski's supposed marquee achievements was reform of the Universal Service Fund (an $8 billion annual program run through the FCC and funded by phone-bill fees). For too long, this program has padded phone-company profits and subsidized outdated technologies. But Genachowski's "reform" did nothing to make providers more accountable and actually ended up raising consumers' bills.
He also ignored the never-ending cable rate increases and made matters worse by approving the Comcast-NBCU merger. And after Comcast began imposing data caps to favor its online video services over competing platforms like Netflix, Genachowski gave a speech in front of the cable lobby in which he endorsed these pointless restrictions. He even hired an industry-funded proponent of data caps as the FCC's chief economist.
I haven't mentioned broadcasting — one the main areas of the FCC's jurisdiction — but neither did Genachowski until he had one foot out the door. And then it was only to push a disastrous media consolidation proposal. He paid no attention to the issue of media diversity, even though women and people of color own just a tiny fraction of broadcast licenses.
In the end, Genachowski's only real priority seemed to be getting good press, though that didn't really happen either. If the chairman had spent half as much time earning support for his actions as he did trying to line up photo ops and balloon drops (not to mention editing his Wikipedia page), then maybe he'd have an actual legacy.
Goodbye and Good Luck
Of course, that hasn't stopped much of official D.C. from praising Genachowski — with the same talk of vision and public service they throw at anybody cashing out. But in reality, Genachowski has left his successor a real mess:
All these issues illustrate how powerful industry players will do anything to protect their narrow short-term interests. We need an FCC chair with the political courage to promote the public interest. We need someone willing to fight for policies that foster genuine competition, protect diversity and amplify local voices. We need someone who will stand up to industry giants and their surrogates in Congress.
In other words, we need to tell President Obama to appoint an FCC chair who is absolutely nothing like Julius Genachowski.
The Free Press Action Fund and a coalition of 27 other organizations sent a letter to President Obama on Wednesday urging him to nominate an FCC chair who will "protect the future of communications for all."
Original photo by Flickr user U.S. Mission Geneva
People + Policy
= Positive Change for the Public Good