Senate confirms Genachowski as FCC chairman

Obama's former technology adviser succeeds Kevin Martin

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Julius Genachowski, a former technology adviser to President Barack Obama's campaign and transition team, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Genachowski, who was once a senior executive at e-commerce company IAC/InterActiveCorp, succeeds Kevin Martin, who led the FCC for four years under former President George Bush. Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, has been the acting chairman since Martin resigned on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day. Genachowski was confirmed on Thursday.

In his Senate confirmation hearings, Genachowski said he would make affordable broadband Internet access for everyone a priority for the FCC. He also said the agency should be more transparent and share more information online, an area where Martin came under fire.

Also on Thursday, Obama nominated Meredith Attwell Baker, a Republican, to fill the vacated seat of Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate. Baker has served as acting assistant secretary for communications and information and acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Obama also made official his nomination of Democrat Mignon Clyburn, a member of the Public Service Commission of South Carolina, to succeed Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

The Senate on Thursday confirmed FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell for a second term.

Genachowski is expected to go to work on Monday after being formally appointed by Obama and sworn in at a private ceremony.

The new leadership in Washington has some policy positions that are different from the previous administration, but it's unlikely Genachowski or Obama will dramatically change communications in the U.S. over the next few years, said analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates.

"The market forces are what is going to ultimately drive telecom," Gold said. Growing competition is gradually giving consumers more choice, which they will exercise if one service provider doesn't meet their needs, Gold believes. With telecommunications carriers increasing the speed of their broadband and adding TV through new fiber infrastructure, more consumers are getting a choice of "triple-play" (voice, data and video) services, Gold said. At the same time, Clearwire is beginning to offer WiMax for voice and data in some cities.

One area where competition may become a force is network neutrality, Gold said. If consumers don't like how one carrier treats the various services available over the Internet, they'll move to another one, he said.

Some network neutrality advocates are looking for more from Obama and Genachowski. Free Press, a nonprofit group that pushed a network neutrality complaint against Comcast last year, said policy statements by the Obama campaign and now the administration provide hope for legislation in this area. Free Press is "cautiously hopeful" that Genachowski will take strong action in areas the group believes are important, said Tim Karr, its campaign director.

Genachowski could take the lead on the issue of allocation of radio spectrum to increase broadband availability in underserved areas, Karr said. For example, the concept of using "white spaces" in between digital TV channels, which heavy hitters such as Microsoft and Google have advocated, could be a boon to broadband choice, he said.

"There's just a lot of potential there, if the spectrum is used right, to bring more choice into an Internet marketplace that's pretty limited right now," Karr said.

Even if the Obama administration does make a big push for either network neutrality or expanding broadband availability, it's likely to wait until more pressing issues such as the recession have been addressed, Gold said.

Major industry groups, including the Telecommunications Industry Association, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Wireless Communications Association International, issued brief statements congratulating Genachowski but were not immediately available for comment.

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