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McAdams On: Reed Hundt Inventing the Internet

The truth has finally been told. Al Gore did not invent the Internet. Reed Hundt did. Hundt, an FCC chairman in the 1990s, recently delivered a gasconade at Columbia Business School that would’ve made Cassius Clay blush. In the space of seven minutes, Hundt drops his close ties to the former president and vice president, his “10 Commandments” of a national common medium, and how the FCC first perceived in the 1990s, when he, Reed Hundt chaired the commission, that the Internet would supplant broadcast as that common medium.

A video of the speech on Vimeo is undated, but Reed’s references to the National Broadband Plan suggest he delivered his revelations in early March:

“Next week, the United States will declare that broadcast and broadcast in the form of cable is no longer the common medium, and that the new common medium is broadband,” Hundt said. “That’s probably not the way the plan will actually read, so uh, I thought it might be useful if I came and told you what it means, even if it doesn’t exactly say that.”

Well thank heaven for that, or the rest of us would have mistaken it for the phone book.

“Now actually, the choice to favor the Internet over broadcast as the common medium was initially made in first-draft form in 1994 to 1997, by some of the people who are now running the FCC, and me.”

Hundt, without batting an eye, says that he was confirmed “the same month that the Internet as a commercial phenomenon was invented, which is exactly what happened.”

This was kind of a joke, except really it wasn’t.

“I was there for about a month and I got a call from one of Gore’s people and he said, ‘come and take a look at this,’ and there was this computer and there was a picture of the Louvre and I said that’s really nice I guess that’s that thing called a ‘screen saver,’ that’s really cute. He said, ‘you don’t understand, that’s actually the Louvre.’”

“We decided in 1994 that the Internet should be the common medium in the United States and broadcast should not be. We did a lot of things between 1994 and 1997 to make that happen, but what I didn’t talk about at the time because I was afraid to, and also because we were groping towards clarity in our thinking, but the fundamental thing was this: The United States had 100 percent, essentially, penetration of the telephone networks, and the world’s largest installed base of personal computers--I think it was about 50 percent in that time period.”

Reed Hundt goes on to talk about how regulations were created to support the growth of the Internet under none other than Reed Hundt. And then he actually says this: “We did a lot of other things. This is a little naughty... we delayed the transition to HDTV, and fought a big battle against the whole idea but we lost.”

E.g., clandestine machinations by public officials cost U.S. taxpayers and thousands of private businesses multiple millions of dollars for something infighting bureaucrats expected to scrap anyway. I would have to say this is more nefarious than naughty. “Naughty” is something puppies do on the carpet.

And here we have a fellow gleefully boasting about being the architect of the debacle.

Yet nauseating as this display of arrogance is, it rings of truth. The FCC clearly has long favored phone companies over broadcasting for nearly two decades. There are undoubtedly details yet to be parsed, including which industries are most lucrative to former FCC chairmen.

Whether or not it’s time for the Internet to replace broadcasting as the so-called “common medium” in the United States is debatable. More households have TVs than computers with Internet access. All the same, technologies evolve, and broadband is going to displace broadcasting. But it’s going to do so because there’s more revenue upside in subscription technology. Plain and simple. When all the East Coast Estab blowhards get past this “common medium” and “public interest” abstrusity, just maybe there can be a reasonably cogent discussion about how to proceed.