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Web 2.0 Summit: FCC Chairman Sees Past Hindering Broadband Future

Julius Genachowski said the facts don't support the charge that the FCC has done nothing in the past two years.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski defended his tenure at the agency and said more must be done to support the investment and innovation in broadband upon which U.S. competitiveness depends.

In an interview with New York Magazine writer John Heilemann at the Web 2.0 Summit on Wednesday, Genachowski rejected the charge that his agency hadn't accomplished much in the way of promoting broadband innovation. He cited the release of unlicensed spectrum, steps to deregulate mobile broadband, and efforts to lower the cost of broadband build-out as unglamorous but necessary broadband advancements.

"This is stuff like tower sighting, and pole attachment and rights of way," he said. "It's the blood and guts of making sure we can drive as much investment as fast as possible in our networks."

But he acknowledged there's further work to be done to support a stronger network infrastructure in the U.S. "I think we've gotten as lot done and I think we have a lot more to do, and we will for a long time, because this is as important a set of international competitive issues as anything else," he said.

Chief among the impediments faced by the FCC is America's success in the 20th century. "Our success in the 20th century is getting in the way of the 21st," he said, noting that the infrastructure of the broadcast TV era has not proven to be a good fit with the needs of the broadband future. As a contrast to the weight imposed by our 20th century network legacy, he pointed to countries where broadband networks can be designed from scratch.

Asked whether the incoming Republican majority in the House of Representatives will limit the FCC's ambitions, Genachowski expressed hope that it wouldn't because global competitiveness ought not to be a partisan issue.

"We're not where we should be as a country in terms of broadband," said Genachowski. Twenty-four million Americans have no access to broadband at all, he said, adding that the broadband adoption rate is 65% in the U.S. compared to 90% in Singapore.

Worse still, he cited a study of 40 industrial countries on competitiveness and innovative capacity that placed the U.S. 6th overall but dead last in terms of the rate of improvement.

The biggest obstacle for the U.S. in terms of broadband policy is spectrum availability, he said. Thanks to the proliferation of network-enabled smartphones and tablets, broadband demand is likely to outstrip spectrum growth.

He also called for reforming the universal service fund, which supports telephone network infrastructure, so that it supports broadband too.

Genachowski expressed limited annoyance at Google's broadband policy announcement with Verizon, noting that he'd have preferred the two companies didn't do what they did exactly when they did it.

But he offered little in the way of specifics about FCC policy. Asked whether we should celebrate or be concerned about the emerging Android/iOS duopoly, he said he didn't know what to think yet.

"The degree of competition and innovation around mobile that we're seeing now is really extraordinary," he said.

As for the kinds of rules the FCC will ultimately try to implement, Genachowski was cautious and reluctant to commit to anything due to the mobile industry's rapid development.

"The mobile Internet is going to be incredible important here and to our global competitiveness," he said.

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