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Genachowski Addresses Broadband, Indecency and Future FCC Plans

Julius Genachowski received generally rave reviews from Senators questioning him about a host of communications issues. He shone even brighter against the bleak picture most painted of the commission under his soon-to-be predecessor.

The committee wants to expedite a vote on his nomination, as well as that of Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, but Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark) said there was still no agreement on when that vote would be. From the praise both roundly received from both Democrats and Republicans, both seemed slated for approval. Several Senators said as much during the hearing.

The slamming of Genachowski's predecessor was not a knock on acting Chairman Michael Copps, who has received similar praise for his stewardship--but former Republican Chairman Kevin Martin, who got battered in absentia even if he did seemingly get Voldemort-like treatment as "the chairman who must not be named."

"Fix this commission or we will fix it for you," was the charter handed out sternly by Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller(D-VA). He said the commission had shortchanged consumers and the public interest, helping special interests at the expense of consumers. He even extended that to the "distasteful way" he said those special interests had clamored for their preferred FCC nominees.

Genachowski said his would be an open and transparent FCC, that made data-driven policy decisions that kept the consumer foremost while understanding the impact on the private industries that are the engines of economic growth.

Saying he had had some of his own problems navigating the FCC's Web site, Genachowski also pledge a more user-friendly communications interface between the commission and the public, suggesting nothing less should be expected from the country's communications agency.

Genachowksi pledged to uphold the law when it came to indecency, saying he shared Rockefeller's and others concern about what kids were watching on TV. He referred to the Supreme Court's recent decision upholding the FCC's indecency enforcement powers on fleeting profanity.

But he also said he supported technological rather than ideological solutions to parental content control. Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, who was also getting a renomination vetting Tuesday, also weighed in on indecency, saying it was time for the commission to start clearing out the backlog of some 1.2 million indecency complaints.

Those complaints have been a sort of indecency limbo since the Second and Third Circuit federal appeals courts threw out fleeting profanity decisions against Fox and the Janet Jackson Super Bowl fine of CBS stations, respectively, as arbitrary and capricious. But the Supreme Court has ruled the profanity decision was not arbitrary and capricious and vacated the Jackson decision, remanding that back to the Second Circuit.

Genachowski signaled his leanings on numerous issues. He said he thought job one of the broadband rollout should be getting service to unserved areas. He said he thought the first priority for the economic stimulus package money for broadband deployment--$7.2 billion--should be to reach unserved households, which he said was giving the biggest bang for the taxpayer's buck. That call will come from the NTIA and USDA, which are administering that grant/loan money, but the FCC has a consulting capacity and must also come up with its own national broadband plan by next February.

But Genachowski also said unserved could be defined many ways, including lack of adoption and lack of speed. He also said underserved could include areas with pockets of unserved people.

He said the FCC's broadband rollout plan should be to insure that folks have "affordable and robust" broadband service, no matter who they are or where they live. It must spur entrepreneurship and grow education and healthcare. "And that is just for starters." Given that sweeping charter, he said, there has never been a greater need for the FCC to work from the perspective of consumers and families.

But Genachowski, whose background includes venture capital posts and Barry Diller's IAC, also said the commission must take into account the changes in the marketplace and the changing fortunes of broadcasters when considering regulation.

Asked for his take on media ownership rules, particularly the newspaper-cross-ownership prohibition given the state of both newspapers and broadcast stations, Genachowski appeared sympathetic to their plight.

He pointed out that broadcasting remained the only universal medium for information, and that while the FCC still had to "pay attention to excessive consolidation," it could not ignore changes in the marketplace and that it would be wrong not to take into account the struggles of the traditional media business.

Asked by Senator Pryor about the state of media diversity, Genachowski said that it would continue to be a priority for the commission, as it had been since the Communications Act put diversity of ownership in the FCC's charter. He said what he had seen so far did not give him a good feeling about where diversity of ownership stands, but that the FCC could work on creative ways to promote diversity that were constitutionally permissible and that work.