New FCC chair could mean pro-public agency

by Paul William Tenny

Julius GenachowskiMy apologies to everyone for my being gone for this long, and further apologies as I'm likely to be non-existent until next week. While I'm here for the moment, I'd like to point out a bit of news to anyone that watches television or uses the Internet: President Obama has named his chief technology adviser from his presidential campaign, Julius Genachowski, to replace outgoing FCC chairman Kevin Martin.
The most immediate change you can expect from the FCC, a monolith of an agency that moves about as slowly as one could imagine, would be a change in focus from corporate media ownership to public interests. Such a thing is expected when moving from a Republican chairman to a Democrat, obviously, but it's still a very stark change in priorities for an agency that was created specifically to regulate radio frequencies for the benefit of the public only.

Many of President Bush's legal battles that are being fought via the FCC -- the conservative war on "indecency" -- may be abandoned by Genachowski and President Obama. There is at least one case at the Supreme Court over the FCC's right to change its long-standing practice of not punishing "fleeting expletives". If someone accepting an award lets slip a surly word or two spontaneously during a live broadcast, the old policy was that the FCC lacked the legal authority to regulate at that level, in fact that very opinion was held by the FCC itself via internal policy and past court decisions seem to agree.

Under Kevin Martin, the FCC recently said that it wasn't bound by its own policy and had the right to change them any time it felt like it, regardless. Under that theory of administration, the FCC began digging up instances of fleeting expletives from the recent past and began handing out massive fines to broadcast networks like FOX, and their various affiliates.

Although argument has already been made before the court, it's possible that Genachowski could drop the FCC appeal and return to the way things were previously done.

It is possible -- though not certain by any means -- that Genachowski could also pursue some type of network neutrality legislation from Congress or attempt to assume such authority as inherent sometime in the near future. You can read all about net neutrality by following the link above.

Media ownership rules that Republican FCC commissioners have been systematically dismantling will also be a hot topic both inside the agency and Congress, which has hotly opposed changes in FCC policy that would allow greater consolidation at the cost of regional and racial diversity in ownership.

Although information is a bit thin right now and I don't have the time to look up something more detailed, Genachowski and President Obama have pledged to support action in Congress to make broadband Internet access more widely available in areas where the telecommunications giants refuse to go. I'm somewhat skeptical about how much can be accomplished on that front within the next four years, given the economic crisis, because there are two very good arguments to be made both for and against pouring money into broadband.

Having broadband connections available in rural areas allows people to be more productive from home, even working entirely from home, where they can stay connected with friends and family and be informed on news and culture, and it increases the property value. In fact many people won't build new homes in areas that lack broadband access. From this side of the fence, you could consider such expenditures to be the kind of community investments that this country needs right now.

On the other side of the fence, with such a large demand for funds coming from nearly every direction, many of them directly related to job loss, there may simply not be enough money to go around, even if it would help to invest that money in communications, it might not be a big enough bang for the buck.

These promises are very similar to ones made by President Bush in 2004, promises he didn't keep. Ironically even with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan going on, compared to right now, there was plenty of money in 2004 that could have been invested in our communications systems that might have had some small positive dampening effect on the recession. Now that money is gone and the United States is very likely to fall even further behind the world in broadband availability, speed, and pricing no matter what Genachowski does.

EWeek is covering the selection but you won't find much more information than what I've already provided for you here. Hopefully next week I can dig into the plans that Genachowski created for Obama's campaign and see if there's anything in there worth talking about.
in Legal, Television


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