At long last, Genachowski

The long-awaited nomination of Julius Genachowski to the FCC chair finally came to pass yesterday, raising questions about the delay. If everybody with an interest in telecom and Internet regulation knew he was the choice months ago, why did the official announcement take so long? I have no inside information, so I’ll leave it to those who do to enlighten us on that question. Perhaps the Administration was just being extra-cautious after the debacles around a Commerce Secretary and others.

Neutralists are excited about the choice, naturally, as they view Genachowski as one of their own. And indeed, if network neutrality were actually a coherent policy and not just a rag-tag collection of Christmas wishes, they would have cause to be exhilarated. But given the range of restrictions that the movement seeks, it’s less than clear that any particular raft of regulations would satisfy them and leave broadband networks the ability to function, so we’ll see how this pans out. We’re already hearing runblings from Boucher that there may not be any Congressional action on network neutrality this year in any case.

Genachowski brings an interesting (and potentially very dangerous) set of qualifications to the job. A college buddy of the President, he’s an inner circle member with the power to wield enormous influence. As a former FCC staffer, he’s imbued with the Agency’s culture, and as a former venture capitalist funding fluffy applications software, he’s something of a tech buff. But he resembles Kevin Martin in most of the important respects: he’s a Harvard lawyer who’s worked inside the regulatory system for most of his life, and he has strong alliances to an industry that seeks to exercise control over the nation’s network infrastructure for its own purposes. Whether those purposes resemble the public interest remains to be seen.

The largest problem with the FCC and similar agencies is the knowledge gap between regulators and the modern broadband networks that are the subject of their regulatory power. Martin didn’t have the training to appreciate the effect that his orders would have on the infrastructure, and neither does Genachowski. So the new Chairman is just as likely as the old chairman to make things worse while trying to make them better.

In a perfect world, the commissioners would be able to rely on the expert judgment of the Chief Technologist to stay out of trouble, but the current occupant of that job, Jon Peha, has a penchant for playing politics that renders him ineffective. The bizarre, quixotic inquiry the FCC made recently into the quality of service variations between Comcast’s voice service and over-the-top VoIP is an example. This isn’t a serious line of inquiry for a serious Commission, and Peha never should have let it happen. But it did, and that fact should remind us that the FCC is more a creature of politics than of technology.

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