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Changing Leaders for Changing Networks

The US Senate has finally confirmed Julius Genachowski as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Larry Strickling as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the Department of Commerce.  Five months after President Obama’s inauguration, the United States finally has its two leading officials on communications policy.  And not a moment too soon.

I’ve had the good fortune to know Julius and Larry for nearly fifteen years, since my days at the FCC during the Clinton Administration.  I worked with both of them on the Obama campaign’s technology advisory group, and on the Transition Team prior to Inauguration. They are both extremely capable, dedicated, and thoughtful.  And they both have experience working in government, at startups, and in large companies, which will serve them well in their new jobs.  (Julius has actually spoken twice before at Supernova – once as an executive at Barry Diller’s IAC/Interactive Corp., and once as a key advisor to the Obama campaign.)

The FCC and NTIA have critically important roles to play in the next few years. The reason is that networks are changing.

First, broadband connectivity and the applications it enables aren’t luxuries any more.  When every independent band has a MySpace page and the President makes electronic health records a centerpiece of his health care reform initiative, it means the line between “using the Internet” and “living life” has collapsed.  The FCC oversees the vast subsidy system for “universal service,” but those mechanisms were developed decades ago to fund telephone connections by shifting money between monopoly phone companies.  In the 1990s, NTIA under Larry Irving pioneered the notion of a “digital divide” in Internet access, by that initiative fell by the wayside under the Bush Administration.  And finally, as the Net becomes a critical resource for democratic discourse and economic activity, the potential for network operators to act as gatekeepers over content and applications becomes a serious concern.  It’s time to refocus on what all these concepts mean in an interconnected broadband world.

Second, today’s Net is not the dotcom Web of 1999. The real-time Internet is changing expectations and business models.  We’ve just scratched the surface of what Google, Twitter, the iPhone, and Facebook will enable, because all of them are ecosystems rather than merely endpoints.  And services like Microsoft’s TellMe, BT’s Ribbit and Google Voice only hint at how communications will soon be transformed. Wireless data and online video are exploding: The executive director of the Mozilla Foundation estimates 90% of Internet traffic will be video in 2013; AT&T Wireless estimates mobile data usage in 2018 will be up to 600 times greater than it is today; and YouTube says wireless video uploading is up 400% just in the week since the launch of the iPhone 3GS.  The list goes on.

In recent years, the FCC and NTIA haven’t adapted with the world around them.  The FCC still has a Wireline Bureau, a Wireless Bureau, and a Media Bureau… but no Internet Bureau.  So how will it evaluate concerns about AT&T barring tethering and media streaming on the iPhone?  The old categories no longer work.  Similarly, while the website I built at the FCC in 1996 was pretty innovative at the time, it’s grossly inadequate today, despite the best efforts of a hard-working staff. The Bush Administration largely ignored technology and telecommunications.  It just didn’t see them as important, and agencies like the FCC and NTIA suffered as a result.

With the arrival of the Obama Administration, there’s an opportunity for the FCC and NTIA to emerge from their slumber.  Most immediately, in the economic stimulus package earlier this year, Congress directed NTIA to oversee a multi-billion dollar broadband grant program, and the FCC to develop a National Broadband Plan.  (Disclosure: I’m doing work for NTIA as an expert advisor on the grant program.) Work on both fronts is well underway.  Finally, though, these efforts will have leaders empowered to make strategic decisions.

Entrepreneurs and technologists like to dismiss government as byzantine and irrelevant, but in this case, doing so would be a mistake.  Julius and Larry understand how revolutionary the Net can be.  Yet they will need a great deal of help from those outside government to succeed.

Given my experience straddling the worlds of technology and policy, Supernova has always been a translation point between Washington DC and the tech community.  We’ll have several key figures from the Obama Administration at the conference in December.  If you care about the future of the Internet, you need to pay attention to the tech policy initiatives coming out of the FCC, NTIA, and other agencies.  The US government finally appreciates the potential of networks for change.

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