For all us telecom geeks out there, the big deal was the President’s rather brief shout out on network neutrality and municipal broadband (munibroadband). You can see the full text of the speech here. The key paragraph was almost literally a blink and you miss it:
“I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”
Still, as we sometimes say, less is more. That little paragraph actually packs some good punch in Washington speak, as I explain below.
Back when the White House was pushing the spectrum bill, I wrote this piece on the general value of a State of the Union (SOTU) shout out. The function here is a little different. Also, unlike a lot of other portions of the President’s speech that he spent more time describing, you need to read this paragraph as a somewhat compressed signal. Here’s how I read it.
On these issues, the President is not asking for legislation. Just the opposite. The FCC is set to reclassify broadband as a Title II service in February and adopt strong net neutrality rules. The FCC is also reported to be ready to take the first step in preempting the local bans on munibroadband by granting the petitions from Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC. Nor does the President need to take time in his speech to sell the concept to the American people or explain it to folks. The net neutrality issue is, according to PEW, fairly well understood as tech issues go (about 60% of respondents got the answer right in a survey, which is sadly an awesome score on a public policy issue — especially in tech) and there is no way to explain it in a SOTU speech for those who don’t get it yet. Finally, the President has already been extremely outspoken on the issue.
Similarly, while the President would welcome Congressional legislation to reform the Universal Service Fund (USF) and generally make more money available for broadband investment (as lumped in with other infrastructure investment), the President has authority to do some stuff with the Rural Utility Service program at Department of Agriculture, and the FCC has already moved the E-Rate expansion and continues to work on USF reform.
So if the President wasn’t selling it, what was the point?
What the President was actually doing is sending a strong signal to the FCC that the White House still has their back on this, stay the course, keep on schedule for the February vote. It was also a clear message to Congress, where Republicans have pushed back against these priorities: “You know all that stuff I said in November about Title II and that stuff I said last week about munibroadband? I meant it. Srsly. This is not something where I will take a quicky “compromise” that sells out the Internet to get this issue settled. It’s not peripheral, it’s not a chip to get traded. It’s part of a core agenda to develop infrastructure, promote job creation and innovation, and provide opportunity to working class and middle class Americans. So either work with me for real or stay out of our way.”
That’s a fairly important message going into the hearings this morning. But the President also had another fairly important message when he first referenced broadband as part of his infrastructure agenda. “Republicans and Democrats used to agree on this.” And he’s right. Even on net neutrality and munibroadband. If you go back and read my old blog posts on the COPE bill in 2006 (which is remarkably similar to the current Republican discussion draft, but that’s a topic for another time), you will find that there was both Republican support for munibroadband and Republican opposition to stripping away the FCC’s rulemaking authority on net neutrality.
Which brings me to the last point. Yes, the President is clearly signaling that Dems need to see investment in broadband infrastructure (including by local governments) and protecting the open Internet not as isolated issues or peripheral techie issues, but as part of a comprehensive plan to ensure that the United States has a robust 21st infrastructure necessary to support a prosperous nation with opportunity for all. At the same time, Republicans should stop thinking of this as “regulation of the Internet” and think of it in the same way we think of highway fund investment and maintaining public roads. This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, and it didn’t use to be.
But if Republicans try to force something through on a party-line vote that places these priorities in jeopardy, the President is not going to cave. If the FCC does the right thing in February, the White House will have their back.