Candidates Begin to Unveil Broadband Plans

President Bush and, to a lesser extent, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, (D.-Mass.) have been detailing their plans for making broadband a ubiquitous presence in the American household over the next four years.
Author:
Publish date:

President Bush and, to a lesser extent, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, (D.-Mass.) have been detailing their plans for making broadband a ubiquitous presence in the American household over the next four years.

Of course, it won't matter one iota with voters, and perhaps that's as it should be.

The Iraq quagmire, more terrorist threats, a jobless economic recovery, soaring gas and health care prices, the environment, children left behind (am I forgetting any other campaign issues?) -- all supersede broadband policy on the election platform.

But broadband is part of the path forward for this country, a fundamental element toward ensuring egalitarian access to information and a competitive workforce in the global market, and the approach each candidate is fashioning reveals much about their vision of the future and, more importantly, the efficacy of their plans.

Each touts universal, affordable broadband access as the cherished goal, and laments America's sorry world ranking in per-capita broadband access: 10th.

2007 OR BUST

In a recent speech, President Bush set 2007 as the deadline for universal broadband access, a laughably optimistic projection despite the surge in cable and DSL broadband access over the past year to 28 million Americans.

The president called for further development of broadband-over-powerline (BPL) and wireless broadband technology, an extension of the ban on Internet access taxes, and further spectrum reform.

Sen. Kerry, blaming Bush for slow progress (the United States ranked fourth when he took office), wants to use "marketplace solutions" and a 20-percent tax credit for businesses investing in broadband infrastructure, while upping government R&D, which he says has been reduced under the current administration. Further, he wants to speed up the transition of broadcast TV spectrum to digital, freeing up more airwaves that he estimates could generate $30 billion at auction.

Meanwhile, a drumbeat of developments in recent months has been framing broadband issues this election season, with the FCC front and center.

ACCESS APPEAL DENIED

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has denied an appeal to reconsider its October 2003 ruling that the FCC mistakenly defined cable high-speed Internet networks as "information services."

This definition allowed cable operators to deny access to their competitors while DSL providers, defined as "communications services," were forced to share access.

Not surprisingly, cable broadband access has outstripped DSL to date, though Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said the redefinition would be bad for competition.

The cable lobby, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (funny, but there seems to be the word "communications" in there), has asked Powell to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but it appears more likely the FCC will abide by the decision.

FISHING FOR SPECTRUM

The FCC has indicated it will add additional spectrum for unlicensed wireless broadband use, a process that should take months. The move should enable wireless Internet service providers to set up less expensive gateways for rural areas, using wireless to backhaul data in lieu of costly cable lines. Tech providers touting the new high-speed wireless standard WiMax, with longer range (up to 30 miles) and faster speeds (70 megabits per second), are lining up to use the spectrum.

But the FCC move has some licensed spectrum users, including Sprint and the Satellite Industry Association, crying foul over what they say will be significant interference issues-a problem dismissed by the FCC but still looming over any wireless spectrum reallocation.

Powell, in a speech in May, said the agency is considering further spectrum reallocation by taking a slice of the broadcast television spectrum and assigning it to wireless and other bands in the 5GHz range.

The chairman said the Bush administration goals will only be met by encouraging wireless broadband access as a third competitor to cable and DSL, which necessitates moving spectrum "to its highest and best uses."

With "all the raw material" laid out for a broadband boost, he added that, "all that's left is the easy part of making it happen."

While Powell works on the "easy" part, Reed Hundt, former Democratic FCC chairman who is now a Kerry advisor, has been hinting at a competing vision.

Hundt, in interviews anticipating a Kerry speech to lay out the Democrat's broadband planks, has indicated an approach that would classify broadband as a "universal service," a government definition allowing allocation of subsidies to support low-income and rural service, for which consumers could receive tax credits to lower prices.

It would be facile to simplify the issue as a typical clash between classic Republican and Democratic philosophies of deregulation versus intervention. Powell has readily been interventionist at times-his backing of the cable industry in its fight against DSL certainly tilted the playing field, while all the Democrats' talk about tax credits and finding "the necessary public money" to help spread universal broadband cheer will most assuredly founder on the grim budget reality awaiting them, should they take office.

And therein lies the rub-money. There will be none of it available. So you can readily dismiss any liberal utopias. But the Bush team has dithered away opportunities to act aggressively in the two areas where policy matters: creating a competitive playing field and overhauling wireless spectrum allocation. Without movement in those two areas, all the administration's talk of universal, affordable broadband access by 2007 rings resoundingly hollow.

So your choice as a voter on this issue may be this simple-go with the incumbent who says the right things but has little track record of doing the right things, and a maddening tendency of blithely steering a sinking ship into imagined sunsets, or choose the challenger who wants to wave the magic wand of public funding.

Who's more myopic? And aren't you glad this issue doesn't matter?

You can reach Will at willworkman@hotmail.com.