Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Genachowski at NARUC

It may not have had the eloquence – or, by definition, the profound significance – of "Lincoln at Gettysburg." But, nevertheless, "Genachowski at NARUC" is worthy of a close reading. I am referring, of course, to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's speech on Monday to the NARUC Convention in Atlanta. To my mind, the speech is one of the most significant given by Genachowski since becoming chairman. Now, the words hopefully will be followed by actions that demonstrate a seriousness of purpose and a sense of urgency on the Chairman's part.

You can read the entire speech for yourself, but here I want to highlight a couple of observations. At the outset, Chairman Genachowski declared:

"At the FCC, our primary focus is simple: the economy and jobs. We’re focused on seizing the opportunities of communications technologies to catalyze private investment, foster job creation, compete globally, and create broad opportunity in the United States."

And then he added:

"The rest of the world is not standing still. And I know all of you are asking the same questions we’re asking: What can we be doing to get our country moving in the right direction? What can we be doing to drive private investment that will grow our economy and create quality jobs? What can we be doing to make America more competitive in the global economy? What can we be doing to improve the lives of the American people?"

And finally this:

"If there’s one thing I want to communicate to you today it’s this: Notwithstanding the tall wall of challenges in front of our country, our sector – the information technologies and

communications sector – can play a big role in driving economic success for the U.S., in the near-term and the long-term."

To me, this focus on job creation, private investment, and the global economy struck just the right note at this time of economic stress. And, importantly, Chairman Genachowski followed up this focus on the nation's economic and competitive position, and the need for policies that spur investment and innovation, in a substantive fashion.

He devoted the lion's share of his speech to explaining the importance of spectrum policy reform - and particularly the need to free up additional spectrum for wireless through incentive auctions and otherwise - and to reform of the inefficient and costly universal service regime. He explained why actions on the spectrum front (we'll have more to say about the recent NTIA action shortly) and on universal service reform are so integral to the development of sound broadband policies, which, in turn, will promote private investment and economic growth.

And what he didn't say is – perhaps – as significant as what he did say. There was no mention whatever in his address of net neutrality regulation or the Open Internet or Third Way proposals for Internet regulation. Now, it may be that Genachowski just decided not to address the highly controversial net neutrality issue before NARUC, and that he has not abandoned plans to try to ram his net neutrality regulation proposal through what we would be an agency deeply divided along party lines.

But it may be – and you know me to have an optimistic frame of mind - that Chairman Genachowski didn't mention net neutrality because he has decided it is time to drop the Internet regulation proposals and, as far as broadband policy goes, to focus the Commission's attention, and its resources, on accomplishing meaningful reform in the spectrum and universal service areas. If so, this would be a very wise and commendable decision on his part. It is safe to say, even more so after this month's election, that if Genachowski continues to pursue net neutrality regulation, without further congressional authorization, he will jeopardize his ability to accomplish those important pro-growth goals that he emphasized at NARUC.

A note: By applauding Chairman Genachowski's speech, and his focus on spectrum policy and universal service reform, I don't want to suggest that I will agree with all facets of his proposals in these areas. I am sure I won't, and we at FSF will continue to articulate market-oriented solutions. But he has his eyes on the right balls.

A final word about net neutrality regulation. The reason I was in Atlanta for the NARUC meeting was to participate in a panel discussion very ably moderated by Betty Ann Kane, Chairman of the District of Columbia Public Service Commission. The title of the panel was, "A Brave New World: How Would Reclassifying Broadband Impact Communications Service." We had an interesting discussion, but most interesting to me was this: More than anything else, the panel's focus turned to questions about increasing broadband adoption, and what the government's role should be on that score. There was little or no argument with my assertion that the Internet currently is characterized by openness. As I said: "That's why Chairman Genachowski and other net neutrality proponents say net neutrality regulations are needed to 'preserve' or 'maintain' Internet openness, rather than to fix an existing problem related to market failure or evidence of consumer harm."

As the discussion centered on the question of the government's role relating to adoption, I pointed out that there are some actions the government properly might consider, such as providing LifeLine/Linkup-like voucher support to low income persons, and others that are better left to the marketplace. But I emphasized this key point: The still-hypothetical harms that net neutrality regulation is intended to address have nothing to do with the adoption question, and it is not necessary or appropriate to take the radical and risky step of classifying Internet providers as common carriers in order for the government to play a proper role in encouraging further broadband adoption.