Last night's debate among Republican presidential candidates was supposed to be about “the economic issues facing the American people,” as moderator Maria Bartiromo described the festivities.
The discussion meandered to and fro on the usual topics – taxes, trade, immigration, health care. Yet in all of these discussions of “economic” issues, there is a glaring omission — the telecommunications/Internet sector of our economy. Perhaps there is a perception that telecom and Internet policy is too complicated for public discussion, or only suitable for a select group of geeks and/or wonks.
The other issues on the agenda are, if examined correctly, not simple. There are few topics as complex as tax policy. And yet, at every presidential debate, including the one last night, candidates are perfectly willing to wade into the fray with details (whether correct or not) on what tax policy is and how to correct it. Health policy is another very complicated issue, but candidates, correctly or incorrectly, raise the issues and debate the merits. Look at Part A or Part B of Medicare. The reality is that every policy area has its share of specialists who dwell in or thrive on the minutiae. There is nothing inherently more complicated about telecommunications and the Internet than about anything else. There is no reason that the issues surrounding the lifeblood of a lot of our economy should be almost totally ignored.
Telecommunications as an issue was totally left out. Do any of the candidates care about the near-total collapse of the competitive industry, or the fact that lack of broadband access is hurting the U.S. economy? It appears not. A recent surveyby the Wireless Communications Association International found that only six out of 17 declared presidential candidates of both parties had broadband policies – and the researchers had to stretch to find some evidence in some cases. That's why it was so amazing that former Sen. John Edwards sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission in favor of an open access policy for the upcoming auction of spectrum now held by TV stations.
A new report, “The Case for Universal Broadband: Now,” sets out a persuasive case for the need to deploy broadband. The paper illustrates the macro-economics with the stories of how some businesses survived and thrived, and why some had to leave particular areas, because of the lack of telecommunications facilities. What we have now, the report said, is a “fraudband” policy.
Certainly, the debate moderators shouldn't have to ask about special access rates or forbearance petitions, or any number of hyper-technical, in-the-weeds issues. But they could have well asked candidates what they thought about Verizon blocking text messages from NARAL Pro-Choice America. The moderators could have asked whether companies can continue to prosper in an economy in which the life blood of telecommunications has reverted almost completely to monopoly carriers. What happened to Republican support for good old competition, which brings about lower prices and more choice?
Bartiromo or Chris Matthews, the other moderator, could have asked about the fact that most Americans have little or now choice in Internet providers, and that we do get is at lower speeds and higher prices than other developed nations as our comparative rankings continually slip. Note to Republican candidates: There is more to economic development than tax rates.
There was some mention of the Internet in last night's debate. Matthews asked this insightful question to Mayor Rudy Giuliani: “How would you police the Internet culturally? You know, the whole question about the stuff that's going on, predators, that sort of thing…” Wow. The only question at a Republican debate on the Internet and it's phrased in terms of the Internet and crime. Giuliani responded about the “new area of serious crime” that the Internet predators represent, and followed with a pitch for not taxing the Internet. Crime and taxes – the two base Republican issues – were the Republican characterizations. Let's not forget a question whether the Internet should operate in a neutral and non-discriminatory manner, without interference from telephone and cable companies.
We know that Republicans are Internet-averse. Look at how they ducked and then postponed a second YouTube debate, with questions asked by real people (not snowmen, as former Gov. Mitt Romney said, referring to one question in the Democratic YouTube debate) over the Internet.
Telecommunications and the Internet are not radical or new areas of policy. They make our economy function, and deserve the appropriate level of discussion and analysis. Our future could depend on it.