President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night certainly hit quite a few high notes for the tech community. There were a half dozen mentions of the Internet, shout-outs to Facebook and Google and a mention of better use of wireless spectrum.
He certainly set an ambitious goal: “Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans.” What he didn’t say was that his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Julius Genachowski, has sentenced all of those wireless users to a second-class Internet experience by leaving them out of the already vague Net Neutrality order issued in December.
There was precious little detail about what the White House called the National Wireless Initiative. This was the official description:
Launching a National Wireless Initiative to provide 98 percent of Americans access to high-speed Internet: To move toward connecting every American to the digital age, including rural communities, the President announced that he will work to help business extend the next generation of wireless services to 98 percent of all Americans. This National Wireless Initiative will enable businesses to grow faster, students to learn more, and public safety officials to access state-of-the-art, secure, nationwide, and interoperable mobile communications. For public safety officials, this can mean the difference between success and failure, or even life and death; as such technologies can allow emergency workers to access building designs at the scene of an accident and police officers to send pictures to one another in real-time. Finally, the initiative will foster the conditions for the next generations of wireless technology, nearly doubling the amount of wireless spectrum available for mobile broadband (through incentive auctions and other mechanisms to ensure spectrum is used more efficiently) and providing critical support for R&D in wireless innovation.
By taking the short cut to Net Neutrality, Genachowski gained AT&T’s support, but put into legal jeopardy not only Obama’s National Wireless Initiative, but also the president’s vision of a broadband-charged America (as recorded by the White House transcript):
“This isn’t just about — (applause) — this isn’t about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.”
That’s a vision that many in telecom circles have had for years, but one which will be difficult to achieve given the FCC’s reticence and the vehement, if ill-informed criticism of the agency from Capitol Hill that could stifle progress toward achieving the president’s goals.
The National Broadband Plan was filled with all sorts of suggestions for expanding wireless service, although it didn’t necessarily specify wireless broadband. Making more spectrum available is certainly one option, and the Administration is looking for 500 MHz more as a result of a presidential order from June. Public Knowledge has suggested as well more imaginative use of Federal spectrum. The Commission has been pushing “incentive auctions” so that broadcasters would give up their unused spectrum in return for getting a share of auction proceeds. Congress would have to approve that and the broadcasters, as usual, are zealously guarding their spectrum.
On the landline side, the Commission has talked repeatedly about converting the Universal Service Fund from supporting voice telephony to supporting broadband, and will take up the topic at the Feb. 8 agenda meeting. The draft order, reportedly 250 pages long, will make all sorts of proposals for redirecting the USF.
However, the basic question underlying both the USF plan and any wireless programs is the same one that will be the subject of lawsuits: Does the FCC have legal authority over broadband? The Commission is likely to take the same cobbled together approach to answer that question in the universal service docket as it did in Net Neutrality, picking up a number of obscure and relatively ambiguous sections of the Communications Act to rely on for interpretation of authority.
Had the Commission simply reclaimed its authority over broadband, the legal challenges would still have happened, but the FCC would have been on firmer legal ground as well.
Congressional opponents want to cripple the FCC’s ability to support broadband by using the dubious “government takeover of the Internet” meme. In doing so, members of Congress are only hurting those constituencies which could benefit from the FCC actively working to promote deployment of broadband. No matter, though. The rhetorical points, even if demonstrably silly, will still gain traction with less informed legislators who care more about preventing non-existent takeovers than helping the economy.
The “government takeover of the Internet” nonsense only helps the incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) take control of the Internet, but few in Congress seem concerned about that. Obama was right on target when he pointed out: “Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do.”
The incumbent protectors in Congress are doing a great job helping us slip further behind, but are doing nothing to help the U.S. get ahead. According to the latest “State of the Internet” quarterly report from Akamai, the U.S. ranks 12th in broadband speeds, with South Korea leading the way. Of the top cities with highest broadband speeds, South Korea claimed 12 (including the top 11), Japan 8, and the best U.S. city was 57th. The picture isn’t pretty, and it gets uglier when one realizes that the slippage comes when the broadband carriers are totally deregulated. There is no excuse for the regulatory structure holding them back. There are no regulatory incentives not to invest, thus proving the point that crimping the FCC, as the Congressional opponents want to do, has nothing to do with broadband performance. It’s all on the companies, large and small, to do as the will. Or won’t.
If the Obama Administration really wants to improve broadband competitiveness, it should take a more active role, rather than sit back and let the companies which have let us down drive the process to becoming competitive again.