As the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during the Clinton Administration, Bill Kennard tried to do the right thing on a number of issues in the face of daunting odds.
That's why it was tremendously disappointing to see him on the pages of the New York Times taking a swipe at Net Neutrality. He joins Mike McCurry as perhaps the most prominent of the Clinton Democrats to side with the big telephone and cable companies in their campaign to control the Internet.
In his column, Kennard tried to make the overall point that access to broadband is essential to the country, which is a fine point to make, but that the debate over Net Neutrality is taking attention away from the deployment issue, which is not a fine point to make. Kennard, who is now with the Carlyle Group, complained that Congress didn't act to bridge the digital divide “in large part because of the polarizing net neutrality debate.” He then suggested: “Policymakers should rise above the net neutrality debate and focus on what America truly requires from the Internet: getting affordable broadband access to those who need it.”
Considering that the best any consumer can hope for in the foreseeable future is a choice between two high-priced and low-speed broadband providers, the conditions under which access is offered are critical. That's what makes Net Neutrality so important and why the dispute over it is so important now. If network operators, including that $2 billion-a-quarter profit machine AT&T, can dictate the terms of the last mile to application and service providers, then affordable broadband will be rendered meaningless. If an affordable broadband policy only expands the reach of the incumbent carriers without creating any new competition or new choices for consumers, then the importance of having Net Neutrality is magnified even more.
Kennard used the tired old telco talking points when referring to Net Neutrality as a battle between the “extremely wealthy,” referring to the Googles of the world and the “merely rich,” meaning the telcos and cable companies. That's nonsense on any number of levels, but the most important is that Google and other “high tech giants” are success stories working to make certain that other companies and entrepreneurs can follow the same path they did. That philosophy certainly clashes with that of the telephone and cable companies, whose legislative and regulatory priorities have been to quash any threats to their domains.
In addition, there is no guarantee that anything Kennard proposes will lead to his quest for affordable broadband. The national franchise legislation, as written, has no build-out requirements. Even the California statewide franchise bill signed recently by the Governator on Sept. 29 had a build-out requirement. Re-tooling universal service using reverse auctions or other methods is a good idea for noodling around, but again, is unlikely to produce any substantive results any time soon.
Let's focus on the short-term protections for the Internet while we can, starting with AT&T swallowing up BellSouth. At the same time, we can work on a policy to bring affordable broadband to more people. The Senate bill wasn't the way to do it.