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The FCC's Genachowski: On a Broadband Crusade


The commissioner, a Friend of Obama, is charged with bringing the U.S. Internet, a longtime laggard, up to speed

Julius Genachowski is not a member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet, but the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is likely to have more influence on our lives than many Obama Cabinet secretaries.

Why? In a word, broadband. Obama has asked Genachowski to come up with a road map to make speedy Web access more ubiquitous and robust so the U.S.—an international broadband laggard—can gain a technological edge. The FCC will present its recommendations to Congress in mid-March.

For now, the FCC will provide only a broad outline of the plan. But it says it will recommend ways to bring more Americans online, boost competition among broadband providers, and attract private-sector money to everything from new wireless infrastructure to funding technology startups. "Broadband is an essential platform for growth and opportunity," says Genachowski. "It will be to this century what the universal electrical grid was to the 20th century when it comes to jobs and innovation."

Genachowski, 47, is an unusual kind of FCC chairman in that, more than any of his predecessors, the President actually seems to pay attention to him. He and Obama have been friends since they attended Harvard Law School in the early 90s. Genachowski went on to work at the FCC, then helped Barry Diller build his e-commerce empire. When Obama ran for President he asked Genachowski to advise him on technology matters. The two remain close, and Gena- chowski often joins Obama's pickup basketball games.

'WILLING TO LISTEN'

Genachowski is the rare FCC chief with day-to-day business experience. During eight years at Diller's InterActive Corp. (IACI), he was chief of business operations and general counsel. Genachowski also shares the Obama team's reputation for pragmatism. This makes him a very different animal from his predecessor, Kevin J. Martin, a former communications lawyer who is best remembered for his crusade to rid the airwaves of what he considered smut.

Executives say that the new FCC chief is accessible, inquisitive, and disarming. "In areas where we may disagree," says Steve Largent, an ex-congressman and chief lobbyist for the wireless industry, "he has been willing to listen, and has initiated fact-based proceedings." Not that Gena- chowksi is afraid to get in the face of any company he thinks is being unfair to consumers. A month into the job, he wanted to know why Apple (AAPL) had rejected Google's (GOOG) free Internet telephone service as an iPhone app. Apple agreed to review the decision.

Genachowski has put a premium on communicating more openly with the public and industries the FCC regulates. The commission has just relaunched its Web site, which is easier to navigate and features blogs by staffers. Among the hires for the 1,800-person commission, Genachowski brought back Blair Levin—his onetime boss at the FCC, who became a well-regarded communications analyst—to help him with the broadband plan. Levin could be appointed to one of the five commissioner seats. Genachowski has also recruited a top Microsoft (MSFT) executive, a retired Navy admiral, the founding editor of Consumer Reports' Web site, and Yul Kwon, a former McKinsey consultant and winner of the CBS reality show Survivor: Cook Islands. "It's essential that I be in the room with a team that has a broad range of professional experiences," Genachowski says.

As part of the stimulus package approved last year, Congress set aside about $7 billion to expand broadband. While it is the most money the U.S. has allocated to that purpose, the sum is widely deemed inadequate if the U.S. is to catch up to other countries. Genachowski has a few ideas on how to supplement the stimulus money. One is to convert a fund set up years ago at the FCC to finance phone service in rural areas. He is also looking at ways to improve Web surfing on smartphones, netbooks, and other mobile devices. The challenge is finding enough wireless spectrum to handle the explosion of demand for streaming video and other bandwidth-hogging services. Genachowksi warns it could take anywhere from 6 to 12 years to free up enough spectrum.

Genachowski's effort to finish the broadband blueprint by next month has him attempting to make time for his wife, Rachel Goslins, a documentary filmmaker, and three kids. Plus, he still needs to write rules to enforce so-called Net neutrality—requiring Internet service providers to give equal access to all content. "He is saying all the right things," says Ben Scott, a policy director for Free Press, a nonprofit FCC watchdog that focuses on topics like diversity in media and Net neutrality. "We are waiting for him to deliver."

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Lowry is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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