Julius Genachowski and Broadband Billing

Comments made earlier this week by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski have raised hackles at organizations like Free Press and kindred groups.  The occasion was the Cable Show in Boston, and the offending subject was what is called “usage-based billing” – the radical notion that people who use more of a thing should pay more than those who use less.

In a Q&A session with Michael Powell, former FCC chairman and current CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Genachowski avowed that there was much to like about broadband providers basing their charges on usage (rather than on a one-size-fits-all basis).

This wasn’t the first time Genachowski had endorsed this practice – it was part of the net neutrality regulations that the FCC promulgated a couple of years ago – but it was enough to provoke the simple folk at Free Press into eruptions of their usual blather.

The last time broadband billing was discussed in this blog (April 2009), the news was Time Warner Cable’s decision, under fire from people and organizations like Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Sen. Charles Schumer, to suspend their trials of this kind of billing in a handful of cities.

As reported at the time, the air was thick with celebration as the “victors” issued triumphant statements on the occasion.  Triumphant no more, they have been reduced, in response to Genachowski’s comments on Tuesday, to broadsides and bromides like this one from Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press: “The data caps being pushed by the biggest cable companies are bad for consumers … and the FCC should be investigating these caps, not endorsing them.”

But enough about broadband billing per se.  The more noteworthy thing about Genachowski’s comment is that this marks at least the third time that he has demonstrated his independence from the louder voices among communications policy outfits.

The first time was with the FCC’s adoption of what came to be called “net neutrality lite,” and the second was when he hired Steve Waldman to head up the agency’s “future of media” report, a document that steered clear of the most intrusive and inappropriate kinds of recommendations that had been proposed for it.

None of this is to say – nor would the gentleman necessarily welcome our saying – that Mr. Genachowski is the very model of what one looks for in an FCC chairman.  Though the net neutrality regulations are much better than what they might have been, better still would be no such regulations at all.

Still, in an environment as divisive as Washington’s, it’s probably a good idea once in a while to step outside of it all and give credit where credit is due.  So props to Julius Genachowski for his embrace of usage-based broadband billing.  ’Tis a fine thing he’s done.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


Fairness Doctrine Redux?

It comes as no surprise that Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most partisan politician in America, has indicated his support for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.  Neither is there any surprise in the reasoning he conjures up for the purpose.

As he told Fox News last week: “The very same people who don’t want the Fairness Doctrine want the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to limit pornography on the air.  I am for that….  But you can’t say, ‘government hands off in one area’ to a commercial enterprise but you are allowed to intervene in another.  That’s not consistent.”

A piece published here in August (Conservatives and the Media) warned conservatives of the danger in promoting governmental restrictions on indecent speech because it would undermine their efforts in opposition to governmental restrictions like the Fairness Doctrine.

“Through [his] Media Research Center," it said, "[Brent] Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against the … [Fairness Doctrine], but because of the pro-regulation stance of his Parents Television Council there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.”

Senator Schumer’s comments breathe  a kind of Frankensteinian life into that warning.  Moreover, there is both a logical and precedential plausibility to what he says.  If government can regulate some kinds of speech, why can’t it regulate other kinds of speech?

The simplest and best answer to that question, of course, is that government shouldn’t be regulating any kind of constitutionally protected speech — a point that Senator Schumer is smart enough to understand but not honorable enough to acknowledge.

For all the talk of it, the view from here is that it is unlikely that, in the end, Democrats and “progressives” will push for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine per se — just too much trouble to promote the thing openly.  More likely they will try to find another, more opaque way of accomplishing the same result.

As reported in Broadcasting & Cable, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) may have inadvertently suggested as much.  “Asked if he would support reimposition of the rule, which was jettisoned as unconstitutional in 1987 and is credited with the rise of conservative talk radio, Cardin did not rule out some review of media coverage.  ‘I don’t think we’re going to get to it in the manner in which you are explaining it,’ he said.  ‘I think we do look at making sure that our system is not biased….’”