The New FCC and a Small Reality Check

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski came to our office today to talk about broadband (check it out), and during both the event itself and the conversations I had with people before and after, it became clear to me how optimistic many of us should be about the New FCC.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, because the agency can only do so much without Congress taking action, and there are still areas such as competition where even the FCC feels stymied, but below are a few tidbits I picked up that entrepreneurs and those of us who care about broadband should feel good about.

The New FCC Is Curious: Genachowski said during the event that he asks his staff to test-drive the new technology the agency is trying to regulate, so they play with new handsets, text each other and download applications on a regular basis. He also mentioned that he’d like to create a lending library of devices for the FCC staff to try since most people don’t carry three smartphones and can’t always afford such tech on government salaries. Afterward he said he’s trying to figure out how to stock any library without running afoul of government ethics considerations. Could we soon see tax-deductible device donations?

The New FCC Sees Value in Unlicensed Spectrum, Too: When addressing the potential for a spectrum shortage, Genachowski said the agency was looking at the how to use existing spectrum more efficiently — even unlicensed spectrum such as the frequencies over which Wi-Fi signals travel.

I asked a staffer when the event was over if bringing more unlicensed spectrum on board was politically feasible. Because spectrum is a government resource that private companies will pay dearly for (the 700 MHz auction generated more than $19 billion), Congress may be loathe to give up that source of revenue. The staffer said he thinks getting more unlicensed spectrum is likely and hopes that any unlicensed spectrum could be offered in a single chunk rather than split up in small chunks such as the current spectrum set aside for white spaces broadband.

The New FCC Views Broadband As the Platform for Basic Services: Genachowski pointed out that from telemedicine to improving our energy infrastructure and education, broadband will be an integral part of that effort.

The New FCC Is Paying Attention: From pre-emptively offering an opinion about the retransmission fights between the recent cable and content companies or asking hard questions as to why Google Voice was blocked on the iPhone, this FCC isn’t afraid to involve itself in some of the fights brewing around the convergence of telephony, television and the web.

These are a few reasons to be optimistic, but there’s still plenty to keep an eye on. When asked about the duopoly in the communications world, Genachowski admitted that determining policy for an industry when there are few competitors and a high barrier to entry isn’t simple. Seeing as the lack of competition can be partially blamed for higher broadband prices, slower speeds in some areas and even tiered pricing efforts with punitive tiers, this is a key challenge facing the FCC.

And these discussions are taking place in the slow-moving world of Washington, D.C. For example, the National Broadband Plan coming on Feb. 17 isn’t the end of the process; it’s the beginning of multiple hearings whereby those proposals will be set into regulations that will likely then be litigated. There’s also Congress, which will have to appropriate money and could even block regulations they or their lobbyists aren’t fans of. Unlike technology, policy is a morass, but at least this FCC isn’t asleep at the wheel.