When he isn’t chairing the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski enjoys a seat at a poker table.
And as it turns out, he approaches cards much like he regulates: with great caution.
Quiet, brainy and restrained, the nation’s top telecom cop and law school friend of the president takes pains to carefully evaluate each hand. He typically shies away from high-stakes, high-risk rounds. Instead, he’ll stick with Texas Hold ’Em long enough to size up rivals, but not long enough to test his luck — even with a decent hand, according to people who have played with him in the homes of Beltway government officials, journalists and sports pros.
But in a town full of aggressive lobbyists paid to bend the FCC’s positions in their favor, that careful and measured approach can be frustrating. Genachowski has sometimes been called a regulatory “Hamlet,” deliberating over details as powerful companies push impatiently for action.
The approach has turned some early supporters into detractors. Regulators aren’t supposed to play a game of negotiator between companies, said Derek Turner, head of policy analysis at public interest group Free Press.
“His tenure has been nothing but a huge disappointment because he’s squandered an opportunity to give consumers the competitive communications market they deserve,” Turner said. “If someone like him upholds compromise, it quickly leads to capitulation, which is what he’s done. He folds...to the pressure of big companies.”
Those high-stakes battles have reached fever pitch during Genachowski’s four-year term, with the agency at the center of a massive technological transition as communications shift from phone lines and TV broadcasts to the Internet. Consumers are dumping home phones for smartphones and canceling cable subscriptions for streaming videos. And the industry is undergoing multibillion-dollar mergers as companies scramble to adapt.
Genachowski points to a string of achievements, including outlining a plan for auctions of airwaves that could raise billions for the government and a landmark effort to spread access to broadband Internet in rural America, a priority of President Obama.
And the 50-year-old says he’s intentionally held his cards close to the vest, negotiating agreements on controversial issues behind the scenes even as critics said he was too soft and slow to act.
“One thing I learned from my predecessors is that people don’t remember the day-to-day battles, but they remember you got it done,” Genachowski said in an interview.
His term at the agency ends next summer, and while Genachowski hasn’t announced plans for departure, he is widely expected to leave as soon as the administration can arrange for a successor. After two successive Republican chairmen who had generally been restrained in exercising regulatory authority, Genachowski entered the job with the intent of staking out the government’s claim over the fast-growing Internet industry.
He wound up presiding over a crucial period in which the powerful companies of Silicon Valley had to become players in Washington. Lobbying the FCC has become a major economic franchise. Each day, hundreds of dark-suited lawyers crowd the antiseptic, mid-century-modern agency building.
They are jockeying for the attention of its five commissioners on merger reviews, local media ownership rules and licenses to use satellites. Often those lobbyists are former FCC staff or aides from Congress, hired by companies to influence former government colleagues. Comcast spent $13 million in 2010 to lobby for its takeover of NBC Universal and AT&T spent $20 million last year to plead for its failed bid for T-Mobile.
Critics say Genachowski initially struggled to keep up. “His term looked in the beginning like it was going to be a disaster because he was in over his head,” said Harold Feld, a senior vice president at public interest group Public Knowledge.
But Genachowski was equipped with a rare blend of private sector and government experience. He was a counselor to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and clerked for Supreme Court justices William J. Brennan and David Souter. Obama appointed him as FCC chief after many months running the Obama transition team’s tech policy team and fundraising.
The former executive for Barry Diller’s Internet conglomerate IAC/Interactive and Harvard Law School graduate promised to be “data-driven” in his role, a sort of compromiser in chief. He often assigns staff to pose as “devil’s advocates” on policy issues to make sure he covers all perspectives.
Like any regulator, Genachowski has sometimes irritated the industries he oversees — particularly for his deliberate, painstaking approach.
Billionaire Philip Falcone blames Genachowski for getting cold feet with his $3 billion satellite venture LightSquared, a project the chairman once touted but eventually put on ice because it was said to interfere with military technology.