Better communications for all

Panel of academics says the new administration offers a chance for the country to 'get it right' in telecom policy

The ability to provide universal broadband Internet access while fostering competition and innovation should be a cornerstone of the nation’s telecommunications policy over the next four years, according to a new report announced today by the New America Foundation.

And Communications for All cover imageThat telecom now is broadband is the underlying assumption of …And Communications for All: A Policy Agenda for the New Administration,” published by Lexington Books. Contributing authors, speaking today at a forum in Washington, said a national telecom policy focused on accommodating the interests of a handful of incumbent carriers has left the country lagging much of the world in broadband penetration, speed and affordability.

“We are living through a critical juncture in telecom history,” said Sascha Meinrath, research director of the foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, which sponsored the project. “The next four years will determine the direction of telecommunications for years to come.”

The book has an academic flavor, having been written without corporate support by a panel of 16 telecom scholars from 11 U.S. universities. The report’s editor, Amit Schejter, co-director of the Institute for Information Policy at Pennsylvania State University, said the intent was to produce a set of practical recommendations without a corporate agenda. He said there are four broad themes running through the many recommendations:

  • The need for a deliberative government policy for the nation’s telecom infrastructure, with clear goals. “There are no goals for broadband penetration in America, so how can we tell how we’re doing?”
  • Policy should be technology neutral and able to adopt new innovations.
  • It should serve the public as well as commercial interests.
  • It should be non-discriminatory, ensuring opportunities for all users and service providers.

Underlying all of this is the idea that broadband IP networking is the universal technology that will enable all types of communications: Voice, video and data, for information, commerce and entertainment. The actual medium used — wired or wireless, fixed or mobile — matters less than ensuring the ability to access it, the authors said.

Two speakers who were not among the authors of the report blasted the policies of the Bush administration and said the country now has a second chance to get its telecom policy right. Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein criticized the tenure of his predecessor, former FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin, as closed and repressive. He said that an emphasis by the FCC on market forces, rather than regulation in the name of competition, has actually worked against competition.

“We won’t allow a few gatekeepers to dominate the Internet,” he added.

Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal and international affairs at Consumers Union, said the same “lax oversight and overzealous deregulation” responsible for the economic recession has stifled telecommunications innovation and competition, leaving much of the nation underserved.

The United States is twenty-second in the world in broadband deployment, and American consumers generally pay more for less speed than in countries with a better developed infrastructure.

Penn State Professor Rob Frieden said a “cockeyed false optimism” on the part of the FCC has led to a market dominated by four wireless carriers, with restrictive services and hardware. At the same time, he said, “the third screen” — wireless mobile devices — “is becoming increasingly indispensable.”

Although prices are higher and speeds lower for broadband service in many urban areas, rural areas are being less well-served, said Sharon Strover, who chairs the University of Texas’ Radio-Television/Film Department.

“The rural areas have gotten a trickle” of available communications technology, Strover said. “It is time for the trickle-down approach to stop.” Investment in building out rural access would benefit the rest of the country as well, she added. “This is fundamentally an economic stimulus initiative.”

President Obama’s proposed $800 billion-plus economic stimulus package calls for $6 billion for building out a broadband infrastructure.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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