IN 2010, Julius Genachowski and his parents visited Auschwitz. It was the first time his father had returned to Europe since escaping the Holocaust. "The family of my father, most of them were killed there. It was a powerful and moving visit," he says.
Genachowski was in Poland at the request of US President Barack Obama, leading the US delegation for the commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. That he was entrusted to make this trip is an indication of just how close his ties are to Obama. The two studied together at Harvard Law School, and Genachowski has served as a technical adviser to his classmate for many years.
In the 2008 presidential race, he was in charge of the Obama campaign’s innovative use of technology that helped to promote grass-roots engagement. Once Obama was installed in the White House, he asked Genachowski to take over the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the US telecommunications industry. He is credited with transforming the organisation to deal with 21st-century challenges: "We modernised it from an agency that had been focused on older communications technologies such as broadcast TV and we focused it on broadband."
Among his initiatives was to produce a national broadband plan, an endeavour he sees as crucial for any country hoping to take advantage of the explosion in smartphone and tablet use. The obstacles to expanding broadband access, though, were significant. Getting the legislation for the incentive auctions through a gridlocked Congress was in itself an achievement. "I worked as hard as I could to keep communications technology issues from becoming polarised and partisan, although polarisation in the US does affect everything. But the other advantage to the idea we crafted was that it produced revenue for the US Treasury."
During his tenure, the US also pulled far ahead of Europe in the implementation of 4G.
But the success that possibly gained the most attention was his record on "net neutrality" — the principle that internet service providers should not give their own content preferential treatment. "I inherited a radioactive battle in the US over net neutrality. (But) we crafted a net-neutrality framework that had wide support. In a fast-moving area, there will always be practices that test the rules. But what I believe we have now is not a never-ending debate about first principles, but debates about applying … settled principles to new business models and practices."
Genachowki’s ability to mediate between companies, the regulator and the government was honed in the private sector. He spent much of his career at Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp, the internet and media company. He credits working there in the early days of the internet with providing him with the skills and insights he would need at the FCC. "It certainly gave me a window seat on the massive trends that were transforming American business." Mobile, for example, was "not really on the radar at first, but I watched it go from a nice-to-have part of tech companies’ game plans to a must-have strategy".
Building a company alongside Diller was also pivotal. "I joined when the company was small, consisting of only two operating units, and I was lucky to help grow it to a many-business-operating company with more than $6.5bn in revenue and 25,000 employees worldwide. Barry is a visionary, and he has the confidence to empower his senior operating executives."
He used a similar approach at the FCC — "Much of what I learnt about management and strategy in the private sector was applicable at the FCC."
It also enabled him to separate the noise from the really important issues. "I think it gave me some ability to distinguish between arguments I was hearing from the business community that were correct and required steps by the government, and bumper-sticker advocacy we didn’t need to spend time on."
He also tried to help the FCC’s staff understand the devices the public was using. To do this, he created the Technology Experience Centre, a room at the FCC where government employees could try out the latest gadgets. To make space for the centre, he digitised then shut down part of the FCC’s library.
"It is real Brave New World, but when you think about it, it’s common sense. Government officials can’t afford cutting-edge devices or they can’t afford more than one, so if you can afford an iPhone, you can’t afford a Samsung Galaxy. I was trying to create a culture to lean into innovation at the FCC."
One reason such efforts are so important is that the next generation of workers will be "more and more digitally literate and digitally demanding", which will force companies and the government to change how they operate. In sectors such as healthcare and education, for instance, "the decision-makers will be 40-somethings who can’t live without their iPhone or iPad and simply won’t accept from their vendors that they can’t have the products that they know are buildable".
While Genachowski does not regret the time he spent at the FCC — "my parents taught me that, if the president asks, there’s only one answer" — he is clearly keen to return to the private sector.
"(Telecommunications) is the most exciting sector in the world and I think we’re still in the early stages of value creation. I would like to be involved with the very large forces — major trends around increasing broadband access around the world, increasing mobile access around the world, ongoing innovation on mobile platforms, cloud computing, all of these creating opportunities."
At present, he is a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies think-tank in Washington. He is also teaching a joint class at Harvard’s business and law schools on "Running a Federal Agency: Lessons from Business, Technology and Game Theory".
More immediately, he is most excited about playing in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, in what he refers to as an "accidental upside" of his departure from the FCC. "You don’t have to qualify. You just have to be crazy enough to want to go play."
A few weeks later, he e-mailed to reveal how he did. "Better than I expected, and not as well as I’ll do next year."
© 2013 The Financial Times Limited.