FCC chair nominee: Broadband deployment a major priority

Rolling out broadband to rural and other areas that lack service will be a major priority for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the man nominated to be chairman of the agency said Tuesday.

The FCC, tasked by the U.S. Congress with creating a national broadband plan, will focus on making broadband available and affordable to U.S. residents, said Julius Genachowski, nominated by President Barack Obama to become chairman of the FCC.

Congress, in requiring a national broadband plan in a huge economic stimulus package passed earlier this year, recognized that "we as a country are not where we need to be, with respect to our communications infrastructure," said Genachowski, who was a tech adviser to Obama's presidential campaign and a former special counsel at the FCC. "We should have, I believe, a communications infrastructure that is world-leading, a 21st-century infrastructure that generates economic growth, opportunity, prosperity."

The nation's broadband infrastructure should be available and affordable to everyone, he told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during a hearing on whether to approve him for the FCC position.

The economic stimulus package provides US$7.2 billion for broadband deployment in both unserved and "underserved" areas.

"The taxpayers should get the biggest bang for [their] buck," Genachowski said. "The priority should be to extend broadband to unserved areas."

But the FCC may also look at underserved areas, he added. Underserved could mean areas where broadband speeds are lagging, where broadband adoption is low, or where there are pockets of unserved areas in places that generally have broadband, he said.

Senators pushed Genachowski on several areas, with committee chairman Senator Jay Rockefeller calling on Genachowski to make the FCC a more open and transparent agency. Rockefeller referred to an October 2007 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which said the FCC violated its own rules by routinely letting some telecom lobbyists know in advance when votes important to them would happen. The agency did not give the same notice to some consumer and public-interest groups, the GAO said.

The FCC also doesn't post all its reports online, and its Web site makes it difficult to find information, Rockefeller said.

Genachowski, a former Senate staffer and founder of a venture capital firm, agreed. "The FCC should be a model for transparency, openness and fairness," he said. "There's a lot of work to do, but I'd like to see the FCC be a model with respect to using communications technologies to communicate openly with the American people."

Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, suggested that the FCC create strong net neutrality rules against broadband providers blocking or slowing customer access to Web content and applications of their choice. An FCC move on net neutrality could prevent Congress from passing a law, Dorgan said.

Some conservatives have questioned statistics that show the U.S. falling behind many other industrialized nations in broadband adoption. Broadband adoption in the U.S. is growing quickly, and new government intervention is unnecessary, said Thomas Hazlett, a law and economics professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

After the FCC ruled in 2003 that telecom carriers no longer had to share their broadband lines with competitors, broadband adoption grew quickly, Hazlett said Friday at a broadband policy event sponsored by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank. Between 2003 and 2006, broadband adoption in the U.S. grew from 10 million to 25 million households, he said.

New regulations, such as net neutrality or network-sharing rules, aren't needed, because broadband prices are low and there's stiff competition between major broadband providers, Hazlett added. "The regulation should pass the cost-benefit test," he said. "When we intervene in the market, things should get better for consumers."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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