The GigaOM Interview: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Mobile, Broadband, iPhone & Innovation

-1Late last week, a day before the Federal Communications Commission started to investigate the Google Voice App fiasco, I spoke with the new FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski. He managed to carve out a few minutes from what has been a very busy first month on the job. As head of the FCC, Chairman Genachowski hopes to revive the telecom and broadband sectors by focusing on “consumers, competition and innovation.” He replaces a telco-friendly and decidedly consumer-unfriendly FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, so in my books he has very little room to disappoint. He says his strategic priorities are mobile, broadband and innovation.

As we bantered about various topics, the new chairman let me know that the FCC had read our essay, What the New FCC Chairman Must Do, a simple manifesto (and task list) that aligns the FCC with the new Internet reality and more importantly, with us, the people. He went on to note that he wanted to “make sure that the FCC’s processes are as participatory as they can possibly be.” Well, getting the FCC involved in the Google Voice Apps fracas just days after it surfaced is a sign of a new, more citizen-centric FCC. The fact that Genachowski’s an iPhone user couldn’t have hurt, either.

Thanks to his background as an entrepreneur (Genachowski used to run LaunchBox Digital, a Washington, D.C.-based startup accelerator program similar to YCombinator and TechStars), he’s putting together a team that is going to packed with engineers and scientists, as he tries to turn his vision of the 21st century Internet and mobile networks. “There’s a for-hire sign that’s open to innovators and engineers and entrepreneurs who want to be part of the conversation at the FCC,” he said. This and more nuggets follow in this interview with one of the key public figures in our Internet-enabled lives.

Om Malik: Describe the FCC under your watch.

Julius Genachowski: The best I can do is say that this commission will be relentlessly focused on competition, consumers, innovation and investment. Our goal is to have the FCC be a model for excellence in government, a real 21st century agency for the information age.

Om: What’s your game plan to do that?

Genachowski: There are two parts to it. One is being clear and relentless about what the agency’s strategic priorities are. And I’ve spent a lot of time meeting with staff of the FCC in large groups and (in) small groups and talking about strategic priorities, talking about broadband, talking about mobile, talking about innovation. I am doing everything I can to get the full staff of the FCC (it’s about 2,500 people) to focus on these strategic priorities. Many, many people here are enthusiastic about this (at the FCC).

Part of the focus is internal and in connection with that, we’re building a team that will reflect a broad array of backgrounds. I have nothing against lawyers — I used to be a lawyer and the FCC needs lawyers — but I’m convinced that for the agency to succeed it is equally important that the FCC to have great engineers, strong economists and people with entrepreneurial backgrounds to be sitting and talking around the tables at the FCC and talking about the kinds of policies will promote the (FCC) objectives I’ve spoken about so far.

If you look at the kinds of people we’re bringing in, you will see the mix of backgrounds. There’s a for-hire sign that’s open to innovators and engineers and entrepreneurs who want to be part of the conversation at the FCC. One part of the game plan is internal: revitalizing, retooling the FCC, and thinking about personnel. The other part is external. And one piece of that is making sure the FCC’s processes are as participatory as they can possibly be. We’re also going to get out of Washington and spend time with innovators around the country who are starting to use broadband and mobile the way the commission should know about and that can serve as a basis in developing smart policy.

Second, we want to be fact-based and data-driven. If you look at how we’re moving forward on a broadband plan you’ll see steps we’re taking to protect those ends. As we go through the steps of preparing for the broadband stimulus plan, we’re going to be fact-based, data-based. We’re not going to be satisfied with submissions that don’t meet the moment. The other thing we’ve done is we are experimenting in a big way with new processes that are unlike anything we’ve done before. And so with broadband we’ve announced that in the month of August, we’re going to do two dozen open workshops on various pieces of the broadband issue.

Om: It is clear that mobile is one of your big thrusts. What are your views on bringing more wireless spectrum to the market?

Genachowski: On a high level, I think we need, one, to explore ways to get more spectrum into the market. Secondly, we need to identify ways that we can help drive more efficient uses of spectrum (software, cognitive radio). Third, we need to think big about creative uses of spectrum, creative ways to allocate spectrum. We should think very creatively about how we can take this unique public resource (the spectrum) and make sure its potential is being maximized by the great entrepreneurs and innovators who are out there.

Om: But the biggest challenge we have is from incumbents. It’s in their best interests to control bigger and bigger portions of this spectrum. The 700 MHz auctions are a perfect example. The big winner is the largest wireless company. You don’t quite see new players coming into the market like, say, in other countries where there is healthy competition. How do we make sure that the competition revolution happens here?

Genachowski: How to ensure that we have real competition in mobile, how to make sure that the way mobile is used in the U.S. is a real platform for innovation and entrepreneurship…these are real issues the commission has an obligation, that it needs to get its arms around. We need to be fact-based and data-driven. We need to look beyond our borders for benchmarks and great ideas and keep our eye on the goals I’ve tried to outline here. We’ve only been up and running (for) a little bit of time but that’s something the commission will definitely focus on.

We’re all waiting for 4G and to be serious about it, one of the things I think that we’re going to be focusing on is what we can do to accelerate the rollout of 4G. We know our spectrum is such a unique resource and increasingly a shared vision about what can happen if we unleash the spectrum. What can the FCC in general do to unleash spectrum, both licensed and unlicensed, and (also) to really identify everything the government and the FCC can do to have the U.S. lead the world in mobile?

Om: There is a notion, that with a device like an iPhone we’ve started to see shift to U.S. back to the mobile universe. What do you think?

Genachowski: I don’t know I’d link into a particular device…the energy around the iPhone is hard to ignore. In general, just looking at the developments recently, it’s not hard to be enthusiastic about the potential innovation around mobile and I think it is necessary that we have spectrum policies in the U.S. that drive innovation, that drive entrepreneurialism, that drive competition and that focus on consumers. The U.S. used to be global leader when it came to communications policy and we’ve really taken ourselves, over the last eight years, off the stage. I don’t think that makes sense. There’s a lot we can do that’s good by being engaged internationally when it comes to communications policy.

Om: By the way, do you have an iPhone?

Genachowski: I do have an iPhone. I do use it. Now I’ve been a BlackBerry user for a very long time. But now I have a BlackBerry and an iPhone and I’m using both, although I do need a pair of new pants with more pockets.

Om: What’s your primary phone? The BlackBerry?

Genachowski: It has been historically the BlackBerry, but recently I’ve been using my iPhone more. (Editor’s note: I joked with the chairman that thanks to his position, his phone works more often than those owned by the rest of us.)

Om: Phone companies and cable companies are trying to impose bandwidth caps on Internet access. By doing so, I feel (and many agree) that they’re actually limiting the scope of innovation. Maybe in that that case, we should think about the need to separate services (TV, video, etc.) from the pipe. What are your views on metered broadband?

Genachowski: It ties into an important policy decision the FCC will be confronting with how we drive a ubiquitous broadband infrastructure that’s open and robust and delivers on the promise of the Internet for all Americans. To tackle these questions we will be focusing on the real facts around what’s going on and what policies will best promote ubiquitous broadband and innovation. It’ll be an ongoing topic. It’s something that consumers of Internet services pay a lot of attention to and we’ve seen that in reactions to some of the events over the last year.

Om: Given that the cable companies are looking more and more like phone companies, isn’t it time to regulate the cable companies? Your thoughts?

Genachowski: We have a relentless focus on competition, consumers and innovation, and we’ll tackle all the hard questions. There are rules that exist that apply to the cable industry now that the FCC has enforced the neutrality principle for the cable industry. Having said that, you’re raising an important issue about what the regulatory landscape will look like in the 21st century given the changes in the landscape.

In 1996, when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, the law did not have the word Internet in it. So the governing statute that lays out the regulatory landscape was written just before the Internet really took off. And that regulatory structure is what continues to govern. It has a lot of room in it for the FCC to apply the language of the Communications Act as amended by the 1996 Act to ongoing facts and circumstances. But I think a lot of people would say that the changes in the industry and changes in technology have moved faster than the changes in the regulatory landscape. What sets of rules…what regulatory landscape will best complement competition in the interest of consumers?

I wanted to talk more with the chairman but unfortunately because of time constraints we will have to wait for another day to get his extended thoughts. Perhaps next time (fairly soon) both Stacey and I will spend more time discussing the issues of network neutrality, metered broadband and cable industry’s oversight in addition to plans for fostering broadband competition. . I believe those are the key to Silicon Valley’s role as the cradle of innovation. I’m planning a trip to Washington soon, where I will spend time with various officials at the FCC.

Photo courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission.