WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama, whose campaign used text messaging and the Internet to raise millions of dollars, is expected to announce key technology appointments as early as this week.
Industry lobbyists, consumers groups and other advocates are waiting for Obama to pick someone to head the Federal Communications Commission and to fill a new job of chief technology officer for the federal government.
“It is a great opportunity ... to be named by a president who lives and really loves technology,” said William Kennard, head of the FCC under former President Bill Clinton and now a partner at the private equity firm, the Carlyle Group.
Top candidates for FCC chairman include Julius Genachowski, a classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law School, and Blair Levin, most recently an investment advisor. Both were high-level staff at the FCC under Clinton, and both are now advising Obama.
Sonal Shah, head of global development at Google Inc, is also advising Obama on telecom issues during the transition.
“President-elect Obama will take office with an administration sort of infused and motivated by this wonderful appreciation of how technology can change the country,” Kennard said on Monday at a telecoms regulation conference.
The FCC oversees U.S. telecommunications regulation and policy. Its reach includes regulation of telephone and cable companies; oversight of concentration of ownership of radio, television outlets, and auctioning public airwaves.
By all accounts, the FCC’s biggest immediate challenge is ensuring the congressionally-mandated conversion to digital television on February 17 goes smoothly, a switch affecting some 20 million consumers who don’t already use the technology. Owners of older television sets receiving over-the-air signals must buy a converter box, replace their TV with a digital TV, or subscribe to satellite or digital cable service.
On Monday, the government said it had ran out of $40 discount coupons for consumers to help pay for converter boxes needed to keep their sets from going black. The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog, warned in September that the government was not prepared for a last-minute surge in coupon demand.
The digital TV transition will be the focus of congressional committees that oversee the FCC, according to Jessica Rosenworcel, senior counsel for Senate Commerce Committee Democrats.
Obama has also said he would create a new chief technology officer to oversee technology efforts across agencies, with a focus on transparency and opening up government to the public.
Former agency officials and others, both Democrats and Republicans, told a Washington conference this week the FCC has failed to keep up with new technologies and is hamstrung by outdated laws that were based on old technology.
“The agency grew up in a different time and place,” Rosenworcel said. “It was small and oversaw monopolies.”
With new leadership on key oversight committees and a greater Democratic majority in Congress, she sees changes coming. “In the 111th Congress, you will see more oversight of the FCC, as well as other regulatory agencies,” she said.
Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, was the subject of a scathing House Energy and Commerce Committee report recently, attacking what it termed his abuse of power.
Martin rejected these criticisms, noting the year-long probe found no legal wrongdoing.
Critics say much has to do with the way the FCC is set up - led by a powerful chairman who controls the vast majority of the agency’s staff and its agenda.
Kathy Brown, a senior vice president of Verizon Communications and former FCC staffer during the Clinton administration, said the agency needs to update its structure and regulations.
Another major task for the FCC is to promote investment in telecommunications, said Reed Hundt, a former FCC chairman under Clinton and now adviser to Obama. Toward that end, Obama has called for broadband technology to be included in a $700 billion economic stimulus package Congress is preparing.
“The question is, how do we get this investment going and what does it look like; what is the market structure that encourages it?” he said.
Kennard said Obama’s familiarity with new technology would move tech policy issues higher on the national agenda.
“It made a huge difference ... during my tenure at the FCC that Vice President Al Gore really cared about the FCC and the sector,” Kennard said.
“I think we have seen in the Bush administration the FCC is not on their radar screen... not even remotely. That makes it a lot harder to get things done.”
Editing by Tim Dobbyn