Julius Genachowski's confirmation hearing for FCC chairman last week before the Senate Science, Commerce, and Transportation Committee was a provocative give-and-take on national communications infrastructure, broadband policy, mobile deployment and transparency.
Genachowski is well-versed in Senate diplomacy. He began his career as a legislative aide to Sen. Charles Schumer who introduced him to the panel and later served as an FCC staffer.
Chairman Jay Rockefeller, Sen. Mark Warner, and Sen. Mark Pryor lavished Genachwski with praise of his Congressional, Judicial and Private Sector experience. So, it was also a lovefest with humor, family (the chairman-designate introducing his wife, Rachel, beautiful toddlers), and support drizzled across the committee floor.
"Government can be a force for good," declared Genachowski, a second generation immigrant whose family fled Nazi occupation. His obligation to public service is a matter of family pride. "The FCC should be a model of openness, transparency, and a fair, data-driven process."
Chairman Rockefeller cited a GAO report calling the FCC the most untransparent, secretive agency with closed hearings. "The issues GAO has raised are staggering," said Rockefeller. "There is not equal access to rule-making. More information is given to corporate stakeholders than public service groups." He said the FCC staff would tell some industry players about the content of votes.
Genachowski rebutted: "We need an FCC that is open as the issues are too complex" for single interest groups. "We will communicate openly with the American People." There will be no more "secret studies."
Critical crossroads issues were also mined such as: minority ownership and diverse FCC licenses, rural broadband penetration (BTOP) to underserved markets, e-911 and police and education frequency (PEG), interoperability, Children's (TV) Viewing Act, Indecency, and even the Dig Once bill now before Congress. Sen. Amy Kobuchar and co-sponsor Warner, in that legislation, call for construction companies to lay broadband fiber or cable while highways and infrastructure are being upgraded. There is also legislation around "texting."
Genachowski was at his best on philosophical issues. He has small kids and wants to use technology and market forces to enforce decent programming content. "Technology can drive solutions under the Chldren's viewing act. "The government can provide incentives for technology companies to offer a solution to parents."
He was near the World Trade Center on 9-11 and understands critical interop and police communications. "Lack of public safety interoperability is unacceptable." Warner added it was a national embarrassment that the U.S. does not have a "fully functioning public safety spectrum."
Sen. John Kerry suggested broadband penetration must also be addressed and indicated telecomm comprises about one-fifth of the U.S. economy. "Our broadband penetration has slipped from about fourth to about 21st," said the former presidential candidate.
Genachowski and committee members talked about mobility and new mobile programs: 270 million people now have mobile phones in the U.S. "The U.S. can lead the world in mobile," he contended.
Home Turf Genachowski was right at home. Chairman Rockefeller chided the committee for making statements, posing some of their questions as a preface, and then leaving the committee room for other business. Rockefeller said from now on, the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee would only permit himself, and Senate minority committee leadership to speak ahead of the Q&A. He scolded colleagues.
"It is embarrassing to the Senate, and to you, Mr. Genachowski" for senators to dash-off. Sen. Maria Cantwell opened the next line of questions by joking: "shall we call this the Genachowski rule!" Laughs all around. Then, Sen. Rockefeller abruptly left before Amy Kobuchar could speak, turning the gavel over to Mark Pryor. Genachowski rule broken by chairman's prerogative.
I was fortunate to serve on the Tech, Media and Telecomm public outreach group for Obama for President which Genachowski chaired. We used several tech surrogates on the campaign trail. Virtually the entire tech and telecomm community was pro-Obama with Genachowski leading the charge from his office at General Atlantic in Washington.
The chairman-elect is a friend of President Obama and has worked with him earlier in Obama's senate days. They are also basketball buddies along with Warner and used to all play at the YMCA together. The confirmation process was really a "lay-up" for the new FCC Chairman.