Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski has a spectrum politics problem problem. On the one hand, he learned from last year’s D Block battle that he needs to stay aggressively on message to sell his spectrum reforms. His every speech on spectrum therefore reads like a campaign speech for incentive auctions. ‘We have a looming spectrum crisis, we need bold action, Congress must act now to pass incentive auctions.’ But, as Genachowski has discovered, this approach can have unintended consequences. Recently, Commissioner Robert McDowell reported that this focus on incentive auctions created uncertainty in Silicon Valley over the FCC’s commitment to the TV white spaces (TVWS). This follows earlier concerns from Senator Snowe (R-ME) and others that the Chairman’s exclusive public focus on incentive auctions invariably means giving short shrift to other, equally important spectrum reforms identified in the National Broadband Plan.
Genachowski moved quickly to reaffirm that support for TVWS remains strong and that TVWS is a big part of the FCC’s spectrum for broadband initiative. Further, the inclusion of several spectrum items for the next open FCC meeting shows that Genachowski remains committed to broad spectrum reform. But these incidents underscore Genachowski’s difficult dilemma. How can he campaign to push through incentive auctions on the one hand, while making sure that other aspects of the spectrum reform agenda receive the prominence and attention they need to move forward? The fact that anyone could doubt the FCC’s continuing commitment to developing the TVWS despite its broad bipartisan support and support from the Obama Administration spectrum team underscores how little it takes to undermine confidence even in reforms already accomplished.
Commissioner Meredith Baker may hold the solution to Chairman Genachowski’s spectrum politics dilemma. Genachowski should appoint Commissioner Baker chair of the reconstituted Spectrum Task Force. At the moment, the Spectrum Task Force is co-chaired by Julie Knapp (Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology) and Ruth Milkman (Chief of the Wireless Bureau). In an ideal world, having two such extraordinarily qualified experts and Bureau Chiefs heading the Spectrum Task Force would be enough to show that Genachowski is not neglecting spectrum reform outside incentive auctions. But in status-conscious Washington DC, the sad truth is that only a Commissioner can give the Spectrum Task Force the “star power” it needs to reassure everyone that serious work continues along multiple fronts.
Not that Baker brings only star power. To the contrary, as a former head of the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), the Administrative agency charged with managing federal spectrum use, Commissioner Baker is uniquely qualified to head up the task force. Everyone recognizes that federal spectrum reform, for the benefit of federal and non-federal users alike, is critical to long-term spectrum sustainability. Baker would bring personal knowledge of how the complicated and often obscure federal spectrum management system works, and can thus shape recommendations that open more federal spectrum to commercial use without short changing the federal government on spectrum resources needed for the future.
More importantly, Baker would bring her wealth of personal relationships with both federal spectrum managers and Republicans on the Hill to the often complicated task of persuading the various federal agencies to work cooperatively on spectrum reform. As a Commissioner, Baker would bring a gravitas that would force political appointees in other agencies to engage in the spectrum reform process in a serious way. As someone who previously served on the federal side, Baker can command respect from career federal spectrum mangers as someone who understands their issues and speaks to them in their language. The importance of this cannot be overestimated, as no federal spectrum reform can truly succeed without cooperation from the agencies that must implement the changes.
For Genachowski, appointing Baker would have two political advantages. First, it would underscore that spectrum reform is, indeed, bipartisan. House Telecom Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-MI) have repeatedly stated that they hope for bipartisan spectrum reform legislation. Appointing Baker to head the Spectrum Task Force would serve as a visible reminder that Democratic and Republican members of FCC share the same priorities in making more spectrum available for wireless broadband and public safety. Sending this message to a Republican House through a Republican messenger can only help Genachowski in moving his legislative agenda forward.
More importantly, it provides a solution to Genachowski’s spectrum politics dilemma. Appointing Baker to an official position as head of the task force would allow Commissioner Baker to serve as a spokesperson for all the other aspects of the spectrum reform agenda, leaving Genachowski free to remain focused on his campaign to push legislation through Congress. Such a high profile appointment would reassure those concerned that Genachowski’s personal focus on incentive auctions does not mean that the rest of the spectrum agenda has stalled. Appointing Baker Chair of the Spectrum Task force would essentially make her a second spectrum spokesperson for the FCC, freeing Genachowski to focus on incentive auctions without creating any negative implications from this focus. Baker’s public speeches on spectrum show both an enthusiasm for real spectrum reform and an understanding of its many working parts, making her an ideal spokesperson for the FCC’s overall spectrum reform agenda.
Some may object that Genachowski and Baker do not always agree on specific policy choices, as evidenced by the debate over network neutrality. But the bulk of these potential disagreements lie outside of the technical reforms that are the focus of the spectrum task force and the spectrum reform agenda. Issues such as the need for data roaming or spectrum caps, where disagreements are more likely to arise, are properly the subject of competition policy and are unrelated to the question of how to make more spectrum available. Because Baker and Genachowski share the common goal in enhancing availability of spectrum from broadband and other uses, and generally share the same pragmatic philosophy about how to achieve these goals, they should easily be able to define the scope of the task force and its procedures to prevent any unnecessary friction on issues where genuine disagreement may emerge.
Rarely in Washington does the right policy choice align so precisely with the right political choice. Chairman Genachowski should move quickly to take advantage of this unique convergence to appoint Commissioner Baker as chair of the Spectrum Task Force.