WASHINGTON The Federal Communications Commission has a new chairman. Julius Genachowski, general counsel for the FCC under former Chairman Reed Hundt, reported to work at the Portals this month.
The Senate gave voice-vote approval to the administration’s nomination of Genachowski before its July 4 recess, and he was quickly sworn in.
The chamber also passed the renomination of Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell.
Prior to the vote, industry observers learned more about what the Genachowski-led agency will look like.
Genachowski is a law school friend of President Barack Obama and technology industry executive. As an adviser and fundraiser during the presidential campaign, Genachowski headed a tech policy group and guided Obama’s use of social networking on the Internet to reach out to voters.
He told the Senate Commerce Committee during the FCC nomination hearing on June 16 that he would focus on national broadband service and consumer issues. The FCC will help oversee billions of dollars in economic stimulus money that Congress allocated in incentives for states and private companies to expand high-speed Internet in rural and underserved areas.
Julius Genachowski at his Senate Commerce Committee nomination hearing. Photo by Leslie Stimson The inner workings of the commission need to be fixed, several lawmakers said as they questioned Genachowski about how he intends to handle the broadband rollout, spectrum use and indecency enforcement. There was much Democratic bashing of the “previous tenure,” meaning former Chairman Kevin Martin, although senators did not use Martin’s name.
Committee Chairman Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the FCC has been criticized by the General Accounting Office, consumer groups and others for a lack of transparency. “Fix this agency, or we will do it for you,” he said.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., told Genachowski bluntly, “You will lead an unhealthy agency. Serious questions were raised about stewardship of the FCC.” Genachowski will have to develop a national broadband plan and spectrum policies, he said, looking at what spectrum lies fallow after the DTV transition and why.
Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking member from Texas, is concerned over broadcast indecency and said she was “amazed at some of the things that are on networks that are supposed to be okay for children.” She’s looking for “responsible, common-sense regulation” in FCC nominees.
Genachowski said his would be an open agency and signaled the broadband rollout would be a priority.
LPFM’S BRIEF APPEARANCE
Switching to station issues, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., expressed “concern” for low-power FM stations and brought up a decision the agency must make about whether a translator or an LPFM has priority when vying for the same frequency.
Currently both are licensed as secondary services. Several FM translator applications remain pending from a previous application window and take priority over LPFMs because there is no current window in which to file for new LPFM stations or upgrades. LPFMs have pressed the FCC for priority.
“If translators get the priorities, then it’s not meaningful to have an LPFM,” Cantwell said.
Genachowski did not signal what the commission would do other than to say diversity of ownership is important to him: “There are creative ways to tackle these issues,” he said.
At a separate hearing in June, Peter Doyle, chief of the FCC Audio Division, told a House Subcommittee the commission expects “enormous” interest in its next LPFM application window. Those dates haven’t been set.
NO FAIRNESS DOCTRINE REVIVAL
Genachowski, who was chief legal advisor to former Chairman Reed Hundt, reiterated that he has no desire to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which once required stations to seek out opposing opinions on controversial issues of public importance; it was scrapped in 1987 as unconstitutional.
Despite repeated assurances from President Obama that he does not intend to revive the doctrine, some broadcasters fear Genachowski might do so under a Democratic-led administration and Congress.
Conservatives and religious broadcasters especially worry the agency might use another pending initiative, the localism proceeding, to achieve the same goal. That proceeding did not come up at the hearing.
McDowell, who opposes the return of the doctrine, said he’s taking Genachowski at his word that it won’t be pursued.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., endorsed his former employee for the agency post. Schumer hired Genachowski “right out of college” and said he’s known him for 24 years.
“Julius,” Schumer said, has a “passion for consumer rights” and an “understanding of where government rubber meets the technology company road.”
The chairman nominee, age 47, looked unruffled and spoke in a clear, rather soft voice, noting that his nomination was also an honor for his parents, who fled the Nazis and settled in this country nearly 50 years ago.
Committee members were effusive in their praise of his years of public service, on the Hill and also clerking for three federal court judges including Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and David Souter, as well as his tech business expertise.
Most questions centered on Genachowski, though some were lobbed at McDowell. He said the commission “could serve the public by reducing the backlog of more than 1.2 million broadcast indecency complaints — some of which are older than my children.”
Genachowski’s confirmation was postponed for months while Republicans wrestled over who should hold the Republican slots on the FCC. Republicans recently settled on McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker, a former Commerce Department official under President George W. Bush.
Obama nominated Baker and Mignon Clyburn on June 25; Clyburn, a Democrat, is a member of South Carolina’s Public Service Commission and daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.