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Genachowski: A Martin or a Powell?

Carol Wilson
9/29/2010

5:50 PM -- So is Julius Genachowski destined to become the next Michael Powell or the rebirth of Kevin Martin?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman came into office making concrete promises of sweeping change, particularly on the net neutrality front, but over the past year has found himself bogged down by the complex issues behind the rhetoric.

As a result, Genachowski now finds himself under attack from both sides of the political spectrum -- the left thinks he's moving too slowly to re-impose FCC will on the evil cabal of broadband providers and the right thinks he's advancing a socialist agenda that will cripple investment in the Internet. (See Politics Meets Technology, Chaos Ensues.)

Against that backdrop, will Genachowski's FCC move decisively, and anger many in the process, as Martin often did, or hunker down, in the manner of Michael Powell, and ride out the storm without truly taking the helm?

Like Martin, Genachowski has some political cover, in that he serves an administration and a Congress dominated (for the time being) by the party that approves his original agenda. But thus far, Congress has been unable to reach its own conclusions on Net Neutrality, and that doesn't seem to be changing. With mid-term elections looming that will bring more Republican influence into both houses of Congress, it's clear the ball remains firmly in Genachowski's court.

So, what's his best shot? Martin believed in less regulation and his FCC acted accordingly, angering consumer advocates and competitive service providers. He also managed to tick off the cable industry, by pushing hard on a la carte programming, overturning exclusive contracts with multi-dwelling units, slapping Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) for its BitTorrent blocking and advocating open equipment standards.

Thus far, it's not clear Genachowski has the same determination, even though his FCC has worked as hard as any in recent member to tackle the tough issues. Last week's upgrade of the E-rate program, allowing schools and libraries to spend more on broadband and to buy dark fiber from competitive players rather than being forced into pricier access services from local telcos, showed willingness to stand up to AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), among others. But that's a smaller issue, not the looming, highly charged mess that net neutrality has become.

Finding a compromise on net neutrality looks increasingly unlikely, as the most vocal proponents have made it clear, in their reaction to the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)-Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) plan and leaked copies of Rep. Henry Waxman's proposed net neutrality bill. (See Free Press Fears Verizon/Google and Google-VZ Proposal Scares Internet Groups and Draft Net Neutrality Bill Would Limit FCC Power.)

So is Genachowski ready to take the plunge anyway? Or will he find reasons, as Powell often did, to avoid the ultimate choice?

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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