What kind of FCC will this be?

Following the departure of former Chairman Kevin Martin, it took more than seven months for the FCC to return to full strength with five commissioners. As the commission approaches its first monthly open meeting with a full panel, the central question surrounding it is: What kind of FCC will this be?

How the new FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, will lead the commission is a subject of intense scrutiny, especially as the agency takes up a range of potentially significant and clearly contentious issues, including:

  • National broadband plan: Congress mandated that the FCC develop and present to Congress a national broadband plan by Feb. 2010. The commission currently is working through thousands of comments on the issue, and recently held a series of workshops to discuss various aspects of it. The subject likely will take up much of the commission's time.
  • Handset exclusivity: This hot-button issue has split the wireless industry, pitting major operators against smaller, regional ones. Tier 1 wireless carriers, most notably Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility, have said the exclusive handset deals help spur innovation. Smaller regional carriers though argue the deals limit industry competition by preventing them from offering the industry's hottest handsets. The FCC is looking into the competitive ramifications of the agreements, and is going to focus on markets in which customers cannot get access to top smartphones due to such deals.
  • Special access fees: Wireless carriers lacking wireline divisions are asking the FCC to put a cap on the special-access fees they must pay to backhaul their customers' voice and data traffic across their competitors' wireline networks. A coalition comprising Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA, U.S. Cellular and others argue AT&T and Verizon unfairly control 80 percent to 90 percent of the backhaul networks in the United States. AT&T and Verizon though have argued that the FCC does not have the right data to properly evaluate the issue.
  • In-market roaming: Currently, wireless operators are not required to offer roaming to rival carriers in areas where those companies own spectrum but have not yet built out their network. In August 2008, the FCC decided not to change roaming rules that allow a carrier to roam in areas where they own spectrum but do not have a network. The issue pits smaller carriers that favor roaming deals against larger carriers reluctant to sign such agreements.

Officials from public interest groups, representatives from carriers and technology companies and former FCC officials said that while it's too early to tell how the FCC might rule on specific issues, it's clear that this will be a much different agency than the Bush-era FCC.

The consensus: Today's commission likely will be much more analytical and data-driven than it has been, it likely will be a bottom-up, staff-driven agency, and Genachowski likely will take a measured, patient look at pressing issues.

A change in style

Perhaps the clearest break from the past, according to a number of Beltway insiders, will be the new commission's management methods. Genachowski is widely expected to take a more analytical approach to FCC business than former Chairman Martin.

"It's an open and notorious fact that the commission under Kevin Martin was a very top-down, heavily controlled, secretive institution," said Barbara Esbin, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation--a free-market-oriented think tank that studies technology--who spent 14 years at the FCC. "And I think Chairman Genachowski and some of the other commissioners have already indicated they intend the FCC to function as a data-driven organization that takes public input in its policy making and rule making and adjudicatory functions."

In December, near the end of Martin's tenure, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce issued a report that charged Martin with a management style that was "heavy-handed, opaque and non-collegial." This rebuke likely was weighing on Genachowski's mind as he worked to reform the commission under his own guidelines...Continued

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