What kind of FCC will this be? Page 2

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Indeed, in his opening speech as chairman, Genachowski said FCC staff "are this agency's greatest asset, and you are the main reason I am so optimistic about what we can achieve together."

Michele Farquhar, former chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunication Bureau, said Genachowski's staff selections show he is committed to a more data-driven agency.

"Many are people not from the political realm, but people who are used to working with data, serious academics or who have been in the industry for many years," said Farquhar, now a partner at the law firm Hogan & Hartson.

Many of Genachowski's appointees bring with them long experience at the FCC. The new wireless bureau chief, Ruth Milkman, worked at the commission from 1986 to 1998 in a variety of positions, including as senior legal adviser to former chairman Reed Hundt, and was responsible for wireless issues and spectrum policy. Her senior deputy, Jim Schlichting, has been at the commission for 24 years.

"The hiring reflects the talk at the top," said Harold Feld, legal director at consumer advocacy organization Public Knowledge. "The fact that they're hiring people at significant positions who are well known for being able to do rigorous research suggests that they're going to be looking at submissions very carefully."

Setting the agenda

The commissioners certainly are going to have a lot of data to sift through across a number of different issues. Indeed, their biggest challenge may be simply getting to everything on the commission's agenda, which has become dominated by the national broadband plan. The commission needs to present its plan to Congress by February.

Thus, the main question is whether major outstanding wireless issues--such as Universal Service Fund reform, special-access fees, handset exclusivity deals and Net neutrality rules for wireless networks--will be put on the backburner in order for the agency to focus on the broadband plan.

"I think that they have to make a choice about whether they're going to try to do these things in parallel," Feld said. Some expect the FCC to handle it all.

"I think that there's enough talent in the commission that they can walk and chew gum at the same time," said Derek Turner, research director at Free Press, a consumer advocacy group. Turner and others said the commission could take up some of these issues--including USF reform, special-access fees and Net neutrality--in the context of the broadband plan. Others were not as optimistic.

Rick Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, said it will be "tough to launch or decide major issues" while the broadband plan is being worked on. He said it will be "hard to get an awful lot done until we're past February 2010."

Practicing pragmatism

Of course, what's key is how the issues get decided, not when. Genachowski, who was chief counsel to Hundt during the Clinton administration, and who served for years as an executive at the Internet firm IAC/Interactive, told the Wall Street Journal in July that his time in both the public and private sector gave him "a respect for the power of private industry to create jobs, to generate economic growth. I've also learned, through this period, the power of pragmatism." But what does pragmatism mean when it comes to deciding thorny issues like whether handset exclusivity agreements should be banned?

Turner said he hoped pragmatism meant conducting an impartial, data-driven analysis before making policy--and not putting opposing sides in a room and hoping for a compromise. "If pragmatism equals compromise, the public policy outcome of that will be garbage," he said. "There will be winners and losers."

But Kathleen Ham, T-Mobile USA's vice president for federal regulatory affairs, said the commission likes to forge compromises. "Does that mean there wouldn't be times when they're going to push the envelope because the industry just won't go there? They may," said Ham, who spent 14 years at the FCC. "But historically, the FCC seems to be interested in working in a pragmatic manner."

Discussing compromise in terms of pragmatism confuses the issue though, according to Whitt. He said that Genachowski's grounding in the technology world means that he will be someone who "appreciates the full power that you have at the agency."

"He knows full well that he has many tools at his disposal to discipline market behavior, and he is going to be wise in using them," Whitt said.

It is clear that the FCC intends to use its tools, based on the agency's agenda for tomorrow. The commission is scheduled to consider opening inquiries into competitiveness and billing practices in the wireless industry.

"The burdens of governing are tremendous, and the responsibilities are tremendous," said Free Press' Turner. "I certainly hope that this commission will signal early on that they won't be a do-nothing commission, but that they will be a do-everything commission."

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