Jury out on Obama telecom policy, but broadband stimulus gives hope

Michael Morisy
26 May 2009

Roughly four months into President Barack Obama's administration, telecoms are still uncertain of how friendly his administration will be, but regional operators across the US are gearing up plans to take advantage of the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus fund.

The jury is still out for telcos because Obama's telecom-related nominees are not in place yet.

"The Obama telecom team really isn't in, so we don't know what they're going to do," said Lawrence J. Spiwak, president of Washington, DC-based telecommunications think tank The Phoenix Center. He added that there are reasons to be hopeful. "The people who Obama has nominated are all exceptionally talented people in the telecom world. What they're going to do - we don't know."

The highest-profile telecom nominee so far is Julius Genachowski, Obama's nominee for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Genachowski, a law school classmate of Obama's and one of his early campaign advisers, was an FCC commissioner under President Bill Clinton and has extensive telecom experience as a venture capitalist.

Genachowski's confirmation hearing has not yet begun, largely because of the federal government's generally plodding pace. The Senate Commerce Committee, which must approve Genachowski's appointment before forwarding it to the full Senate, originally announced a hearing date only to delay it later without a clear reason.

"I think the delay is more structural and organizational than questioning who [Obama] has nominated," said Vince Vittore, an analyst with Yankee Group. "A lot of [his nominees] are good choices, and these people are well qualified." Vittore said that it is less a question of who is going to be approved than when they will be approved.

Also up for approval now, and both widely expected to receive it, are Lawrence Strickling as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which functions within the Commerce Department, and Aneesh Chopra as the nation's first chief technology officer.

If approved, Strickling will be charged with doling out much of the broadband stimulus funds and ensuring that Obama's vision for greatly expanded broadband access, particularly in rural markets, becomes a reality.

Strickling brings some direct telecom experience from his time as a legal adviser to Ameritech, one of the Baby Bells. He also served as chief of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau in the Clinton administration.

Overall, the industry reception to the Obama nominees has been relatively warm.

"Everything I've read about who Julius may be bringing in [is that they are] absolutely top-flight people," Spiwak said.

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