Rating the legacy of outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

After almost four years in the role, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said Friday that he was stepping down.During his four years as the head of the FCC, he failed to stop a stunning loss of regulatory authority as a result of a court case started by his predecessor, and made minuscule strides in boosting broadband competition. To top it off he also oversaw regulations that may further diminish the FCC’s authority as we head into the IP age.
He did however, forge better connections between the tech industry and the FCC and managed to stop a merger that would have certainly hurt consumers. He also tried to make more wireless spectrum available — taking on the powerful broadcast industry to do so. But instead of listing his achievements and capitulations, I dug up a list that my colleague Om Malik and I wrote back in 2009 when he was named to the role.
In the post we told him what he needed to focus on during his tenure. Now, it’s time to look back and see what he has accomplished.

FCC Chairman Julis Genachowski

FCC Chairman Julis Genachowski

An internet bill of rights: While Genachowski did manage to pass a version of network neutrality regulations in 2010, he did so in a way that leaves those rules in doubt before a lawsuit that has been filed by Verizon and MetroPCS. Instead of addressing the idea that the FCC has no power to regulate things that occur on information services (basically anything that’s delivered via the internet) which surfaced after a court ruling in 2010, Genachowski’s FCC did nothing to try to strengthen its authority before passing those rules. Now, the case is before the same court of appeals that decided against it the first time around. Grade: C
A focus on one key metric for all FCC decisions — namely returning the U.S. to the global forefront of Internet and mobile technology: On the mobile side, the chairman focused on LTE deployments and getting more airwaves for mobile broadband. And U.S. carriers have already deployed LTE networks ahead of many other countries. On the wireline side, it’s a bit mixed. Broadband caps and a lack of wide scale fiber to the home projects are keeping the U.S. far from the top in international rankings. According to the most recent (June 2012) OECD reports, the U.S. isn’t tops in terms of average or median advertised speeds. We were No. 1 in terms of connections, however. Grade: C+
An emphasis on future technologies (mostly wireless) that boost marketplace competition: Here the FCC has done a lot, despite political and unexpected technical hindrances. Genachowski’s FCC attempted to create a wholesale 4G network using satellite airwaves only to see that idea flail as interference with GPS spectrum was discovered. He also stopped a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile that was not in consumers’ best interests while also pushing for more spectrum and setting in motion an incentive auction that could provide airwaves for the carriers as well as for unlicensed broadband. Grade: B
Special incentives to attract new players (and not older companies) that bring broadband to the masses : Genachowski hasn’t done much here except issue press releases, but others have stepped up including Google and Gigabit Squared to bring gigabit fiber broadband to a few cities. Grade: B-
Tax credits for widespread deployment of broadband speeds of upwards of 20 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up for less than $50 a month without caps: That’s not happening. Grade: F
Better and more connectivity to office buildings, especially from newer players: While companies like Webpass or Sonic.net continue to deploy faster services in more places, business broadband wasn’t an issue the FCC has touched. Grade: F
An IP-centric, rather than voice-centric, approach to reforming the Universal Service Fund: This is a thankless task, but the FCC has started on the road to an all-IP world first with universal service fund reforms as well as a current debate on how to make the transition to an all-IP world, as well as what rules the agency should enforce. Grade: B
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Policies that bring quality of service into the wireless agenda: Om envisioned this as something like penalties for dropped calls, but I’ll expand it to issues like Verizon’s phantom data charges and the fights between app makers, phone companies and carriers that tended to catch consumers in the middle. The FCC was actually pretty vocal in these cases, even if it only managed to draw attention to bad behavior. Grade: A
An understanding that Google, and other web companies, are not the consumer’s friend, so their agenda shouldn’t automatically be trusted: Politics is a sport for big boys and Genachowski’s FCC was pretty transparent in pitting Google and other tech companies against the cable guys and the telcos and assuming that the resulting middle ground was an okay place for consumers. Grade: D

Final summary

All in all, Genachowski spent a lot of time on wireless, believing that to be an area where the FCC had room and regulatory authority to add capacity and improve competition. He was utterly neglectful on the wireline side, not doing much to strengthen competition, or even address issues such as caps and the virtual standstill on investment in rural areas. He also exits an agency that is weaker on the regulatory front than when he started and may end up weakening it further depending on the rulings in the network neutrality case.
He did start the arduous process of reforming the telecommunications regulatory regime to reflect the IP-based future and tackled universal service fund reform. Without a successor named yet, it’s hard to say what the next priorities will be for the FCC, but bringing off a successful auction of airwaves taken from the broadcast industry will be on the agenda as will the issue of how to regulate (and transition to) an all-IP telecommunications network.
Meanwhile, consumer issues such as the high cost of broadband, data caps and the eventual fate of network neutrality are all issues that may or may not change regardless of the new chair. The more things change, the more things still manage to stay the same.