In a few days, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Though his plate will be full on many fronts including the economy, two wars and health care, the president-elect has promised to bring quick and major change to American communications technology.
Two key Obama priorities are network neutrality on the Internet and a greater diversity of media ownership. They will be coupled with his major public works program, which will greatly expand broadband access for all Americans.
Many of Obama's ideas about technology go back to the campaign. His views on the subject have been clearly stated and are well known by his supporters. His planned expansion of broadband access, announced just before Christmas, enhances other Obama imperatives—for example, interconnecting hospitals and doctors' offices for improved access to electronic medical records.
A NEW DIRECTION
President-elect Barack Obama The Bush era FCC resisted large-scale government intervention in broadband and opposed net neutrality. To great controversy, it loosened media ownership restrictions. But Kevin Martin, the champion of Republican values, will soon be out as chairman of the FCC. A new Democratic era is about to begin.
Expect major opposition to Obama's goals from the telco and cable television operators, who now control the nation's broadband infrastructure. The telcos paid billions of dollars for spectrum and will fight to defend their exclusive use of it. The cable operators want to manage their precious bandwidth their way.
One of Obama's long-held technology promises is that he will "ensure the full and free exchange of ideas through an open Internet and diverse media outlets." The candidate's Web site said he "strongly supports the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet."
Obama said Internet users must be free to access content, to use applications, and to attach personal devices to the network. They also have a right to receive accurate and honest information about Internet service plans from vendors. But the president-elect said these goals will not prevent network providers from discriminating in ways that limit the freedom of expression on the Internet.
"Because most Americans only have a choice of only one or two broadband carriers, carriers are tempted to impose a toll charge on content and services, discriminating against Web sites that are unwilling to pay for equal treatment," Obama said. "This could create a two-tier Internet in which Web sites with the best relationships with network providers can get the fastest access to consumers, while all competing Web sites remain in a slower lane.
"Such a result would threaten innovation, the open tradition and architecture of the Internet, and competition among content and backbone providers. It would also threaten the equality of speech through which the Internet has begun to transform American political and cultural discourse," Obama said.
The new administration supports the basic principle that network providers should not be allowed to charge fees to privilege the content or applications of some Web sites and Internet applications over others. This principle will ensure that the new competitors, especially small or nonprofit speakers, have the same opportunity as incumbents to innovate on the Internet and to reach large audiences.
Continuing on diversity in media ownership, Obama noted that over the past several years, the FCC has promoted the concept of consolidation over diversity. The president-elect said providing opportunities for minority-owned businesses to own radio and television stations is fundamental to creating the diverse media environment that federal law requires and the country demands.
As president, Obama said he will also clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum. The administration will promote greater coverage of local issues and better responsiveness by broadcasters to the communities they serve.
In announcing his public works program, the president-elect said it's unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption.
"Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online," Obama said.
He promised to invest record amounts of money in the vast infrastructure program, which not only includes expansion of broadband access, but smart electrical grids, work on schools, sewer systems, mass transit, dams and other public utilities. He will create jobs working with alternative fuels, windmills and solar panels; building energy efficient appliances, or installing fuel-efficient heating or cooling systems in government buildings.
"We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s," Obama said.
STAYING TRUE TO HIS WORD
The president-elect noted that the FCC now defines "broadband" as an astonishingly low 200 kbps.
"This distorts federal policy and hamstrings efforts to broaden broadband access," he said.
"We can get true broadband to every community in America through a combination of reform of the Universal Service Fund, better use of the nation's wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives," the president-elect said.
Looking to hold Obama to his promises is Free Press, an Internet advocacy group that just released its "2009 Media & Tech Priorities: A Public Interest Agenda." This document outlines media and telecom policy that Obama and congress should implement in the coming year.
"The core of the Obama agenda aligns squarely with the public interest goals of creating a more democratic media system and promoting universal access to communications technologies," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press.
The group advocates four public interest priorities for 2009: to protect an open Internet, to promote universal, affordable broadband technology, to increase diversity in media ownership and to renew public media.
To download Free Press's public interest agenda, visit: www.freepress.net/files/2009techpolicy.pdf.
Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer. Visit his Web site at www.frankbeacham.com.