07 Feb National broadband policy: Let's get it right this time
Some people are talking about having a “National Broadband Strategy,” and that is a good issue to discuss. However, the one cautionary comment I would have is: “Let’s get it right this time.”
Several articles have popped up that discuss the need, but do not reflect some of the keys to “making it right.” One article, written by Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, states:
“In March 2004, President Bush called for universal, affordable broadband access by 2007. It is now 2007, and according to various statistics, the United States is still falling behind the rest of the world in the availability and quality of advanced communications services. Furthermore, we do not even have an accurate measure of how many households have access to broadband services. History shows that the United States is fully capable of being the world leader in technology, but our preeminence is threatened. We must devise a strategy to regain and retain our edge.”
I agree with his desire to set a strategy, but I definitely believe his follow-up statement that the Telecom Act of 1996 “clearly benefited the consumer” is somewhat reaching. He goes on to say:
“Consumers have clearly benefited from this rapid innovation and change, even though the changes have sometimes proved unsettling. The Internet has transformed from a hobby for computer enthusiasts into an essential medium for communications and commerce. We have indeed come a long way since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in an attempt to increase competition in the communications marketplace.”
At that time, we thought we had a pretty good blueprint for how the communications market place might evolve. Regulatory intervention would open local and long-distance markets to greater competition, technological convergence would allow phone and cable operators to enter each others’ core businesses, and the steady growth of the Internet would improve access to information in our nation’s schools, libraries, and rural health clinics.
What we have learned since then is a little humility. In some cases, our predictions proved correct. For example, technological convergence has transformed “single service” networks into multi-service platforms that today are capable of offering a wide array of voice, video, and data services, though this change took longer than we would have preferred.
Let’s not rewrite history
My assessment of the Telecom Act of 1996, after reviewing it at the time, was that it was nothing more than another “Pork Chop Bill.” (“Pork Chop Bill: The Telecom Act of 1996,” Network World, April 15, page 39). Part of that article observed the following:
“The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is not that great a piece of legislation unless you’re a regional Bell operating company or a Washington, D.C. bureaucrat looking to find a new staff position in a federal agency. It’s got more pork in it than a Jimmy Dean sausage.”
The act contains sections that, in effect, guarantee rates to carriers that might lose market share as a result of increased competition, as well as the creation of several funds and agencies that sound good if you’re in favor of bureaucratic and corporate welfare.
So Senator Inouye’s concern about becoming more competitive and getting a national perspective is noble, but let’s make sure that we correctly assess what we have and correct it, rather than just update it and produce more pork. The Telecom Act of 1996 was far from being the Magna Carta of megabit emancipation.
In an article written by Congressman John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the author states:
“Protect consumers: Above all, we must remember that communications networks run over public resources such as spectrum or a community’s local rights of way. Our policies should demand that service providers adhere to appropriate social responsibilities that serve the common good such as public safety, law enforcement, privacy, and universal access.”
For the United States to maintain its global leadership in the information economy, it’s time for a better broadband policy that serves all Americans. Both Dingell and Inouye were around in 1996 and were not too concerned about competition, based on what they approved in the 1996 Telecom Act.
Another part of my article back in 1996 observed:
“As for opening competition, parts of the act actually guarantee a closed market for certain services to carriers that obviously had some good lobbyists. For example, there’s a section that guarantees exclusivity to Regional Bell Operating Companies that bought alarm-monitoring services prior to the signing of the bill. How much did Ameritech, which bought National Guardian Alarm Services in 1995, pay its lobbyists to get that piece of tenderloin into the bill?”
This time, maybe less is more
If Congress is really interested in helping America get back into leading-edge position, they should just set some very high standards for everyone to try to attain. Goals like “One Gigabit by 2010,” established for the California broadband initiative, are simple and understandable.
We don’t need another version of the Telecom Act of 1996, which was sold as some great breakthrough when it was adopted, yet proved to be nothing more than a stifling bill that actually helped protect incumbents, restricted real competition and investment, produced a lot of pork, and basically got us to where we are today: Behind many countries who we were in front of 10 years ago. Let that sink in a little before you send an e-mail telling me otherwise.
Those shortsighted executives and lobbyists that throw out questions to stifle innovation, stop curiosity, and protect obsolete business models should be labeled for what they are. At best, they are out-of-touch protectionists of an obsolete infrastructure. At worst, they are self-serving traitors that are actually weakening this whole country’s economic infrastructure by trying to tell us that “old is good” and that having the highest-speed network services is not a real concern.
Oh, is that a little too strong for some of you? Sorry, but you have to be politically accurate on a critical issue like this, not politically correct. They should not be listened to as they are not interested in the best economic interests of the future of America, but more focused on the narrow future of their short-term corporate profits as well as their annual bonus.
As strong as a New Orleans levee
Politicians on both sides better start rising above partisan politics and campaign contributions to get all America moving forward at a faster pace. This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic crusade. This is a global competitive issue that needs strong bipartisan cooperation to make real progress instead of pseudo-arguing and blame that produces and processes good pork for both sides.
Let’s all work together to build something real and not agree on something touted from a bipartisan standpoint as strong and protecting our future, only to find out it is as strong and protective as a New Orleans levee.
CARLINI-ISM: Leading-edge countries do not maintain their position protecting trailing-edge technologies.
Copyright 2007 – James Carlini
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