Thursday, June 10, 2010

"America’s future town square will be paved with broadband bricks"

speech yesterday by FCC Commissioner Michael J.Copps to the Silicon Valley tech community provides an interesting and timely counterpoint to new Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's first major speech on broadband issues earlier this week (more details here).

Copps was particularly eloquent on the civic importance of broadband and the role public policy should play in spurring its development:
“Getting broadband infrastructure deployed ubiquitously is the great infrastructure challenge of our time - and one upon which the innovation and creativity of Silicon Valley will ride. For openers, speaking of things that we can do together, Washington and the tech community have an urgent educational challenge to meet. We need to ensure that people understand how broadband is not technology for technology’s sake - it is important because it really can be our “Great Enabler.” This is technology that intersects with every great challenge confronting our nation - improving energy efficiency, halting climate degradation, improving healthcare for all our citizens, educating our young (and our old, too), helping the disabled realize their full potential, creating new public safety tools for first responders, and opening the doors of economic and social opportunity for all. But broadband connectivity is about even more than that. Increasingly our national conversation, news and information, our knowledge of one another, will depend upon the Internet. That is why I worked so hard for the inclusion of a strong Civic Engagement chapter in the Commission’s recent National Broadband Plan, and it is why the Commission is looking so closely at the future of journalism in our society. Each of these challenges that I just mentioned has a broadband component as an important part of its solution. None has a solution without that broadband component. None has a solution without broad public understanding of how important this is. And none has a solution without Washington policy-makers understanding how great the nation’s stake is in all this.
He went on to draw a parallel with previous infrastructure-building developments, but highlighted some very significant differences in the approach being taken in broadband development today:
"If you course back through the annals of America’s past - all the way back to the very beginnings - you will find that earlier generations met and mastered their own great infrastructure imperatives - things that had to be built if the country was to continue its forward march. So those generations built roads and bridges, turnpikes and canals, regional and then transcontinental railroads, an interstate highway system, nationwide electricity grids and nearly universal plain old telephone service. They did this, more often than not, by working together - private enterprise in the lead, to be sure, but encouraged by visionary public policy. That’s how we built the place! But somehow, when it came to the roads and bridges and highways of the Twenty-first century - broadband - we forgot those lessons and fell victim to a strange and totally unhistorical assumption that broadband would get built without any special effort, absent any enlightened public policy encouragement, and that business would build it out even in places where business had no incentive to go. That cost us a lot. We lost precious time. We lost golden opportunities. We fell behind other countries. We paid the price in jobs, education, health, energy - you name it."
No punches pulled there! Commissioner Copps' argument above reminds me of Malcolm Matson of the Open Public Local Access Network (OPLAN) Foundation's suggestion that if the  national policy approach currently being followed in the UK (in relation to the step change from copper to fibre) had been applied previously when we progressed from canals to railways, we would have simply laid railway tracks alongside canals so as to pull barges faster, completely negating the huge potential the railways went on to deliver. For more on the OPLAN Foundation and its work have a look at the “Open Access – Impacting Telecoms” presentation available here.

Returning to Commissioner Copps' speech, he was similarly direct in relation to the fall-out from the previous Comcast Decision and the ongoing Title I/Title II reclassification debate that has ensued as a result:
“We must now reflect these changed market realities in our policies and get back on course by treating Internet access services - the gateways to the Internet - as the telecommunications service they are, subject to the most basic of nondiscrimination and transparency safeguards. Chairman Genachowski has announced his intention to launch a proceeding next week to examine the options - continuing down our failed Title I path; applying the full range of Title II requirements and safeguards; or a proposed “third way” of applying a limited number of fundamental provisions of Title II to Internet access service. Frankly, I would have preferred plain and simple Title II reclassification through an immediate declaratory ruling, accompanied by limited, targeted forbearance from certain provisions - wiping the slate clean of all question marks. The quicker we can bring some sense of surety and stability to the present confusion emanating from the Comcast Decision, the better off consumers - and industry, too - will be.”
He was quick to refute claims that the FCC's wish to reclassify broadband as a Title II service amounts to a "government takeover of the Internet":
“Think about the alternative. If the FCC does not assert its authority to exercise basic Title II oversight, consumers could be denied access to your service, you would be denied access to them, and there won’t be anybody who can do anything about it. This isn’t about government regulating the Internet - it’s about making sure that consumers and innovators, rather than a handful of entrenched incumbents, each control their own online experiences. Allowing a powerful duopoly - in many places a monopoly - to exercise unfettered control over high-speed Internet access does more than just create technology and economic risks; it poses a real threat to the future of our democracy. We are late in understanding the profound civic implications of broadband as we begin to migrate so much of our national conversation to the Internet. America’s future town square will be paved with broadband bricks. It must be accessible to all - not the province of powerful gatekeepers, tollbooths and walled gardens. It must reflect the diverse voices of this diverse land."
Finally, in closing, he highlighted the importance of preserving openness, competition and public interest value in the media landscape, and the risk that current market developments pose to "ensuring that all citizens have access to worthy media, to the news and information our democratic dialogue requires". In doing so he drew another very interesting historical parallel:
"Washington, Jefferson and Madison understood that a democracy depended on an informed citizenry, and established postal subsidies to ensure the widest possible production and dissemination of newspapers - the broadband of their day. They did this, by the way, at huge expense to the federal government. Technology changes, but our democratic challenge remains the same."
If that isn't a clear recognition of the importance of broadband and a clarion call for public investment in infrastructure, I don't know what is. Over to you, Culture Secretary?

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