FCC Chief On Defensive Over Stalled Broadband Plan

When he took the top job at the Federal Communications Commission 16 months ago, Julius Genachowski pledged that the agency would be the "smart cop" on the Internet beat, protecting consumers and innovators alike. Instead, critics charge that the FCC is now weaker than ever.

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Julius Genachowski took the top job at the Federal Communications Commission 16 months ago. At the time, he pledged that the agency would be the smart cop on the Internet beat, protecting consumers and innovators alike. Well, now, he finds himself on the defensive, with critics accusing him of making the FCC weaker than ever.

Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Not long after he took the reins at the FCC, Chairman Julius Genachowski laid out his Internet policy in a speech at the Brookings Institution.

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late.

ROSE: In that Brookings speech, the new FCC chairman echoed an Obama campaign promise: that the Internet should remain free and open to all legal data and applications - an idea known as Net neutrality.

A few months later, the FCC released its National Broadband Plan, a massive document full of dozens of proposals for making Internet access faster and cheaper for all Americans. But critics say the FCC has produced more rhetoric than results.

JOSH SILVER: Since Genachowski took the chairmanship of the FCC, very little has happened.

ROSE: Josh Silver is president of the public interest group Free Press. He says Genachowski seems unwilling to challenge the powerful phone and cable companies that provide broadband access to nearly all American homes.

SILVER: An agency chair has to make tough decisions which, more often than not, contradict the desires of the largest companies with stakes in the outcomes. Julius Genachowski is terrified of making those decisions.

ROSE: The telecommunications industry has plenty of clout on Capitol Hill. And Genachowski's backers say his critics don't fully appreciate the difficulty of his position. Kevin Werbach is a professor at the Wharton School who consulted on high-tech issues for the FCC and the Obama transition team.

KEVIN WERBACH: The FCC right now is caught between Congress on the one side and courts on the other. They can't just come up with a policy that feels good. They have to adopt something that is enforceable.

ROSE: The FCC's job got even harder last spring, when a federal appeals court ruling threw the commission's legal authority over broadband access into limbo. Since then, the FCC has been scrambling to come up with a new strategy. It brought major Internet and telecom companies together. When those negotiations broke down, two of the participants - Google and Verizon - offered their own proposal for Net neutrality regulations. Public interest advocates like Josh Silver say the Google-Verizon plan would be a disaster.

SILVER: You're going to see the phone and cable companies start to favor some Internet content over others. They'll start to create fast lanes for the companies that can pay for it, slow lanes for everybody else. And you will see the Internet becoming more like cable TV, which really ends the Internet as we know it.

ROSE: Public interest groups and startup companies want the FCC to go back to regulating broadband access the same way it regulates phone service. But the cable and phone companies that dominate broadband howl that more regulation would kill Wall Street investment. In an interview last month, Genachowski sounded like a man who still believes in consensus.

GENACHOWSKI: We're working on difficult, substantive issues. We need to get this right because we need to adopt rules that both preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet and do it in a way that generates very significant private investment in the network.

ROSE: Some in Congress seem to be losing patience with that approach. Powerful Democrat Henry Waxman tried to broker legislation that would break the stalemate over net neutrality rules. His search for consensus broke down when Republican lawmakers refused to sign on. And if Congress can't reach a compromise, Waxman says:

HENRY WAXMAN: Then I think the only course of action will be for the FCC to act on its own. As imperfect as that may be, as uncertain as that may be because of possible lawsuits, we just don't have any other recourse.

ROSE: Representative Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington State, put it more bluntly.

JAY INSLEE: Now, we have to have FCC movement on this. There is only one cop on the beat with the whistle and the enforcement power.

ROSE: Still, the FCC chairman should resist the political pressure to act quickly, says the Wharton School's Kevin Werbach.

WERBACH: Ten years from now, no one is going to care very much whether the rules came out in 2009 or 2011. They will care very much if they were rules that stood up in court and before Congress. And they'll care very much if they're rules that actually promoted a vibrant, innovative Internet economy.

ROSE: But time is not on the FCC's side. If Chairman Julius Genachowski thinks he has it tough now with a Democratic majority in Congress, he may find it even harder to operate next year.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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