WASHINGTON, June 16, 2009 - While decrying years of poor stewardship under former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, the Senate Commerce Committee looks poised to approve Julius Genachowski as President Obama's choice to be the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
"The powers of the FCC are vast," Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. warned Genachowski in his opening statement. "Its decisions impact every American." But Rockefeller lamented over the past eight years, FCC policies have "served the companies they regulate" rather than the public interest.
And while Rockefeller is "thoroughly impressed" with Genachowski, he offered up a number of challenges for the presumptive chairman. "I want an FCC that is transparent... that inspires public confidence," he said. Rockefeller dared Genachowski to "prove to us that the FCC is not battered beyond repair." But he warned the nominee he expects results: "Fix the agency - or we will fix it for you."
Ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas - who along with Sen Mike Johanns, R-Neb., was only one of two Republicans to attend the hearing, was similarly impressed with Genachowski's credentials. "He certainly has the capability to handle this job," she said.
But Hutchinson repeatedly pushed Genachowski - in her opening statement, and again in questions - on the importance of broadband deployment in unserved markets rather than focusing on underserved areas that might already have some kind of service. "I believe it is... important that we ensure everyone has broadband access before we go into underserved areas," she said.
Reaching unserved areas is indeed the FCC's first priority, both in the stimulus package provided under the American Reinvest and Recovery Act, and in the commission's forthcoming national broadband plan, he replied.
"The first principle the agency should follow... is the taxpayer should get the biggest bang for its buck," he said. And Congress' mandate for a national plan "is a recognition that we as a country are not where we need to be," he added.
Underserved can have a number of different definitions, he told Hutchinson. Not only did he suggest underserved could refer to an unserved "pocket" within an area that has service, but also to areas where broadband has not been adopted. The FCC can adopt strategies to increase adoption in such cases to make broadband "a sustainable economic possibility," he said.
Increasing transparency in the wake of Kevin Martin's chairmanship - of which many Senators were extremely negative in their recollection - was another recurring theme in both statements and questions posed to the nominee.
Reform of the FCC requires an agency-wide commitment to "openness, fairness... and fact-based decision making," he said while responding to a question from Rockefeller on if the FCC was "structurally capable" of carrying out its statutory responsibilities. "The FCC should be a model for transparency, openness, and fairness," he said.
Universal service should also remain "a core principle of communications policy," he told Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. And network neutrality is essential to "preserve the internet as the greatest platform for small business creation that we've ever had," he said.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., later said Senate leadership has not yet scheduled final votes on either Genachowski or Republican nominee Robert McDowell, who also appeared before the committee.