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CES 2010: Genachowski Hits the Floor

Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Jan. 8, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski described broadband as an "engine for economic growth" and emphasized that providing wireless broadband access will be an important component of the national broadband plan the Commission is currently formulating.

But he did give some comfort to broadcasters, who are lobbying against the FCC reallocating part of their spectrum for mobile broadband applications, by acknowledging the importance of free over-the-air television for millions of Americans.

In a wide-ranging one-on-one keynote interview with Consumer Electronics Association chief Gary Shapiro, Genachowski said one could see the importance of mobile broadband simply by walking the CES floor and seeing all the wireless devices available. And he said that aggressive demand from such devices outstrips the supply of available spectrum.

"Our data shows that there's a looming crisis," said Genachowski. "Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, but some point in the future."

While the FCC will explore using the spectrum more efficiently, such as through secondary licensing, he said it is clear the FCC needs to find more spectrum to achieve its goal of universal broadband access. The two most likely sources are broadcasters and government users of spectrum, a point he reiterated in a press briefing after the Q&A with Shapiro. But Genachowski did acknowledge the importance of stations' existing DTV broadcasts.

"I want to make it clear," he said. "Today there are still millions of Americans who get their video programming over-the-air, and that is an important reality that has to be taken into account in anything we do. In a world of universal, ubiquitous broadband access, that changes a lot of things, and how it changes depends on how we achieve the goal of universal broadband."

When asked in the press briefing how important access to live video would be as part of a wireless broadband service, Genachowski was coy, though he did seem to acknowledge the difference between point-to-multipoint services like mobile DTV and unicast services like broadband streaming.

"There are different kinds of video when you're thinking about the broadband future," he said. "You have live one-way video, like sports and other forms of programming, but there are also all kinds of live two-way video, like conferencing and remote diagnostics. When you think about the needs of the infrastructure going forward, and ways to manage the use cases around all of it, the pressure on the system that video creates causes some of the hardest challenges."

When asked directly about the relevance of broadcasters' new mobile DTV technology, Genachowski said only that "there are a lot of positive and creative ideas being suggested on how to have a win-win when it comes to spectrum--how to free up spectrum for mobile broadband and how to preserve over-the-air TV."

The chairman did take a mild shot at the cable industry, however. Asked by Shapiro about why cable set-tops are still not available at retail despite the government's effort to create such a market by mandating that operators separate the conditional access functions in their boxes (i.e. CableCard), Genachowski said the pace of technology innovation in cable lagged other industries. He said that is a relevant issue for the FCC as it looks at providing universal broadband, as TV penetration is far higher than the penetration of computers (he said TVs are in 99% of U.S. homes, while computers are in 76%).

"Notwithstanding the law, there is much less innovation in that area than in other areas," he said. "The Internet has created millions of apps, and mobile has perhaps 150,000 apps. When you look at the living room and the TV, the number is much, much lower. Part of that has to do with this issue, that the CableCard experiment is not working yet."

Genachowski did say that he was encouraged by the number of "connected TVs" with broadband capability that are coming to market.

"You can see a broad desire on the floor that TVs are open for innovation," said Genachowski.

When asked about the current case (Comcast vs. FCC) in D.C. District Court over the FCC's authority in ordering Comcast to stop throttling back Internet bandwidth for users of the file-sharing site BitTorrent, Genachowski noted that the litigation related to a previous FCC administration. While he said it was apparent from recent court hearings that the FCC needs to "bring clarity and predictability to this area", he defended the Commission's right to take action against Comcast.

"I think the FCC had the authority to do what it did, and we're going to continue to defend it vigorously," he said. "But there is a need to bring clarity and certainty to this area."