Obama eyes tech-savvy insider for FCC chief

President-elect Barack Obama plans to nominate Julius Genachowski, one of his key technology advisors, to be the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), according to a Democratic official.

Genachowski, a friend of Obama’s from their days at Harvard Law School and a top fundraiser for his presidential campaign, would bring a corporate technology background and inside-the-Beltway experience to the FCC. He supports net neutrality, the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally–a notion supported by many of the nation’s schools and universities. And he favors the expansion of broadband access nationwide as a key driver of economic competitiveness.

The FCC is responsible for policing the nation’s airwaves, regulating the cable and phone industries, and protecting the privacy of consumers. It also oversees the $2.25 billion-a-year e-Rate program, which provides telecommunications discounts to eligible schools and libraries. By law, the party that controls the White House gets to name the chairman and three of the five agency commissioners.

From 1997 to 2005, Genachowski held several executive positions at Barry Diller’s internet conglomerate IAC/InterActive Corp., including chief of business operations and general counsel. Before joining IAC, he spent three years at the FCC during the Clinton administration, including as chief counsel to the chairman. And from 1991 to 1994, he served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justices David Souter and William Brennan.

Genachowski is known for his detailed technology and innovation plan that supports net neutrality, affordable broadband access across the United States, and media-ownership rules that encourage more diversity. He also spearheaded Obama’s social-networking grassroots campaign during the election.

The Obama team would not confirm earlier reports of the planned appointment, and people with knowledge of Genachowski’s selection spoke on condition of anonymity Jan. 13 because the decision has not been formally announced. The Democratic official noted that the nomination is still not a done deal.

Genachowski now works as a Washington-based venture capitalist and is co-founder of Rock Creek Ventures and LaunchBox Digital, an investment firm.

Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who was Genachowski’s boss at the agency and is working on trade and economics issues for the Obama transition team, praised Genachowski’s background. Hundt noted that if Genachowski were to be picked, he would be the first entrepreneur, the first venture capitalist, and the first technology executive to head the five-member commission.

"People have long thought that the FCC needs a chairman with a sound business background for a Web 2.0 world," he said. "Assuming he is nominated, Julius is the perfect person."

One issue certain to be at the top of Genachowski’s agenda is the upcoming transition from analog to digital television broadcasting, which could black out millions of Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels. The Obama administration is calling on Congress to postpone the transition, which is scheduled for Feb. 17.

Josh Silver, executive director of the public-interest group Free Press, said that "the challenges facing the next FCC are enormous–a vast digital divide, an open internet in jeopardy, consolidated media ownership, newsrooms in economic freefall, and entrenched industries invested in maintaining the status quo. This moment calls for bold and immediate steps to spur competition, foster innovation, and breathe new life into our communications sector. With his unique blend of business and governmental experience, Genachowski promises to provide the strong leadership we need."

Another likely priority for Genachowski is increasing access to affordable high-speed internet connections. The new administration is expected to try to do that by tapping the nation’s wireless spectrum and turning to the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes telephone service in rural and poor communities and also pays for the e-Rate.

"Given Genachowski’s views on the need for affordable broadband, there is optimism that schools will receive the needed funding to provide technology access for all students, teachers, and staff," said Tracy Gray, managing director for the National Center for Technology Innovation. "He understands technology and what it takes to build a high-quality infrastructure to end users. His views on net neutrality will provide support for those who do not want to increase user fees that schools would not be able to afford. In addition, he realizes the potential for technology to enhance education and reach students who are disengaged in traditional delivery of the curriculum. I believe he will be an advocate for funding to educational technology."

Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, agreed that Genachowski is a good choice, saying: "Genachowski is clearly a choice that places priority on openness and access with the public interest in mind. School-age digital learners, as well as mid-career workers involved in retooling and upgrading skills, will likely benefit from the appointment of Genachowski and the educational opportunities his leadership will enable. We are excited to work in very productive ways with the potential head of the FCC."


Federal Communications Commission

Free Press

National Center for Technology Innovation

International Society for Technology in Education

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the GIS and Geographic Inquiry resource center. "Geospatial" technologies–which include geographic information system (GIS), global positioning system (GPS), and remote sensing (RS) tools–are becoming increasingly important in our everyday lives. These technologies use "smart" maps that can display, query, and analyze geographic databases; receivers that provide location and navigation; and global-to-local imagery and tools that provide context and analysis. Go to: GIS and Geographic Inquiry

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