Henry Jenkins has posted on his blog a paper by Stephen J. Schultze about “Broadband and the Public Interest” that is well worth reading for those who are interested in somehow stemming the slide of USA telecommunication infrastructure into a shamefully inadequate technological backwater for the benefit of a few greedy cablecos and telcos and their bought legislators:
Telecommunications policy wasn’t exactly a hot-button issue in the midterm elections, but the resulting power shift in Congress could affect the trajectory of the Internet for years to come. Most of us are fairly satisfied with our day-to-day Internet experience. Why involve the bureaucrats when things are working just fine?
The problem is that things aren’t working just fine. When it comes to broadband, we are falling embarrassingly far behind much of the rest of the world. On the heels of the elections, FCC commissioner Michael Copps wrote an editorial in the Washington Post entitled “America’s Internet Disconnect.” He noted that according to one study of “digital opportunity,” the US ranks 21st in the world, right behind Estonia. We rely on private companies operating according to their market interests to connect us, and these companies have become more consolidated and less competitive in the last several years. Unfortunately, our telecommunications policy has failed to address the market failure that has left millions of Americans with limited and expensive options for broadband access – or none at all.
In the weeks leading up to the elections, high drama unfolded in Congress as Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) attempted to capture support for a telecommunications bill that revised parts of our telecommunications law. The bill met with stiff resistance from advocates of something called “network neutrality.” Net neutrality is the long-standing principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally without discriminating between who is sending it – a kind-of free speech clause for the net. A diverse group of supporters thinks that the issue is as important as the broadband access issues highlighted by Commissioner Copps. The Stevens bill, which would effectively prevent such neutrality, was barely blocked before the elections. Likewise, a merger between AT&T and Bellsouth has been stalled while FCC commissioners try to decide whether provisions like net neutrality should be imposed. Some representatives have suggested that the FCC wait to hear from the new neutrality-friendly Congress before making any decisions.
These two issues have a common lineage in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. At the time it passed, the Clinton-championed legislation was hailed as a deregulatory victory that would clear the way for technological innovation. By 1999, the Internet had taken off in unanticipated ways, and it was becoming clear that the bureaucratic intricacies of the Act were more hindrance than help. Justice Scalia noted, “It would be gross understatement to say that the 1996 Act is not a model of clarity. It is in many important respects a model of ambiguity or indeed even self-contradiction.” The Act has contributed to a great deal of confusion about how to best encourage true competition that would help address commissioner Copps’ concerns, and it set up the structure that allowed network neutrality to be challenged.