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Q&A

FCC chairman has broad approach to Net access

Making high-speed Internet available throughout the U.S. is a top priority of Julius Genachowski.

July 20, 2009|Jim Puzzanghera

WASHINGTON — Expanding high-speed Internet access throughout the United States is a top priority for Julius Genachowski as he starts his term as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Genachowski and the agency are charged by President Obama and Congress with helping to ensure that all Americans can participate in the ongoing technological revolution that is integrating broadband with television and other devices beyond the computer.

The 46-year-old lawyer has extensive experience in Washington and the technology industry. And it helps that he's a friend and former classmate of Obama's.

Genachowski was a clerk for two Supreme Court justices and worked on Capitol Hill as well as at the FCC. He also spent a decade in the technology arena, including eight years as an executive at Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, the Internet and media giant.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama talked often about expanding broadband Internet access, and, as president, he signed into law the $787-billion stimulus bill this year that includes $7.2 billion to do that. The Commerce and Agriculture departments will distribute the grants.

But the stimulus law puts the FCC in charge of developing a national strategy by February for improving broadband access nationwide. It's a daunting task for the historically slow-moving FCC, which was criticized during the tenure of former Chairman Kevin J. Martin for infighting, questionable research and general bureaucratic dysfunction.

The FCC is undergoing a major transition as the five-member panel shifts to Democratic control. Not only is Genachowski taking over for Martin, but the Senate is considering two other Obama nominees -- Republican Meredith Attwell Baker and Democrat Mignon L. Clyburn -- to fill vacancies.

Genachowski talked with The Times about his agenda.

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What's your top priority for the FCC?

One is broadband. And the other is revitalizing and retooling the FCC.

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What's the FCC's involvement in getting out that $7.2 billion in broadband money?

What Congress put together in the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] is a two-part game plan for broadband that makes a lot of sense. One part is the grants. And that's designed to be consistent with the overall Recovery Act objectives: Get the money out fast for near-term job creation, near-term stimulus to economic activity.

At the same time, in the same law, Congress and the president required the FCC to develop a national broadband strategy, the goal of which is to make sure the country has the communications infrastructure it needs for the 21st century.

This to me is a very big deal. Broadband is our generation's major infrastructure challenge. . . . It's about whether we have in the U.S. a 21st-century infrastructure that's an enduring engine for job creation, economic growth, innovation and investment.

Making sure we have an infrastructure that delivers these goals -- that's universally available, that's robust, that's open, that's high-speed -- is not a small challenge.

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Is it a problem if much of the broadband stimulus money is spent before the strategy is completed?

I don't think so.

I think that the Commerce Department and the Agriculture Department will be able to pick projects that fit into an overall plan, projects that will generate near-term jobs that will bring broadband to parts of the country that need it and that qualify under the statute. And that, I think and hope, will start quickly creating facts and evidence and data that will actually inform a national broadband strategy.

We're going to run a process that will be very fact-based and data-driven. But at some point there's still a certain amount of experimentation and testing that has to happen to determine what are the most important uses, what are the technologies and strategies that best meet the objectives.

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How does your experience in the technology field help you in this task?

It's made me a believer. It's not theoretical for me. I spent a lot of time the last 10 years working with great entrepreneurs, great job creators. . . . I think I bring a practical appreciation of the kind of innovation and job creation that we can have in our communications infrastructure.

I think another thing it's done is it's enhanced my appreciation for the role of markets and entrepreneurs and innovators, while also helping me see the ways in which government is absolutely relevant, can make a difference in creating a climate for competition, a climate for innovation, a level of familiarity with the ways in which government can be helpful.

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After working with President Obama on the campaign as a technology advisor, how important is broadband to him?

One of the impressive things about the president is that he has an appreciation for both technology and people. I've gotten to know a lot of people in the technology world who are just brilliant technologists but don't necessarily have a feel for ordinary Americans and how they can potentially interact with technology.

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