Is the Bush Administration Finally Getting Serious about Broadband Policy?

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For the past three and a half years, high-tech sector officialsand watchers have been patiently waiting and wondering if the Bushadministration was ever going to formulate a serious broadbandpolicy. Early speeches orannouncements on the subject were quite ambiguous and generallycharacterized by plenty of talk about the importance of a broadbandfuture, but contained very little in the way of action items. Ina speech this week in Minneapolis, however,President Bush finally decided to get a little more specific abouthis vision for this sector.

Better Late Than Never. One wonders why it tookthe White House so long to come up with a concrete plan, butelections (sometimes) have a way of forcing candidates to betterdefine themselves in effort to gain voter allegiance. Not thattechnical telecom and broadband policy matters are likely to winmany votes, but their importance to the overall economy isnonetheless clear and that makes what the candidates say on thesearcane issues important. What exactly does President Bush proposefor broadband? His speech and a corresponding press release contain a fewimportant agenda items worth noting.

* Better Access to Federal Lands:First, he proposes increasing access to federal lands for thepurposes of laying more fiber optic cables or the placement ofwireless transmission towers. That certainly can't hurt broadbanddeployment, but access to state and local lands is thereal problem is here. Local rights-of-way issues and wireless towersiting issues have long plagued this sector, but Bush's plan onlyaddresses access to federal lands since that's the only thing overwhich he has clear jurisdiction. It would be very difficult-andprobably constitutionally impermissible-for the federal governmentto preempt state and local authority over their rights-of-way ortower-siting decisions. Conclusion: Bush deserves credit for tryingto ease government-imposed burdens on broadband deployment, butthere's likely little he can do about the real impediments todeployment at the state or local level.

* Pushing Emerging BroadbandAlterntives: Second, Bush stressed the importance ofmaking the policy reforms necessary to encourage emerging broadbandtechnologies, especially broadband over powerlines (BPL) and newwireless networks and applications. On the wireless front, Bushstressed the steps that his administration has already taken toopen up more spectrum for private bidding for next generationwireless services as well as the spectrum set aside for unlicensedwireless broadband applications such as Wi-Fi and Wi-Max. He alsostresses ongoing efforts by the Department of Commerce to improvespectrum management overall. Conclusion: On each of these agendaitems Bush deserves praise for pushing alternative broadbandconnections for home and business. Even bolder reforms could bepursued on the spectrum front, but the FCC and Commerce Departmentdeserve a great deal of credit for the important strides they have taken inrecent years to liberalize the spectrum.

* Banning Internet Access Taxes:Third, Bush reiterated his support for a permanent ban on state andlocal efforts to tax broadband access. His timing was importantbecause as he delivered his remarks the Senate was poised tofinally give floor consideration to the extension of the InternetTax Freedom Act, which contains a moratorium on such taxes butexpired last fall. Conclusion: Bush deserves credit for once againmaking it clear that state and local governments shouldn't beallowed to convert the Internet into another cash cow to be milkedfor billions of tax dollars.

* Standing by His Man at the FCC:Fourth, and most importantly, the president's speech made aspecific point of mentioning that "we're going to continue tosupport the Federal Communications Commission" and "ChairmanMichael Powell's . . . decision to eliminate burdensome regulationson new broadband networks availability to homes." "In other words,"he continued, "clearing out the underbrush of regulation, and we'llget the spread of broadband technology, and America will be betterfor it." In particular, the press release the White House releasedafter the speech also singled out the FCC's decision, pushedstrongly by Chairman Powell, to free new fiber-to-the-homeinvestments from traditional telecom regulations, especially theinfrastructure-sharing provisions of the Telecommunications Act of1996. The press release states, "Deregulating new ultra-fastbroadband infrastructure to the home removes a significant barrierto new capital investments." Conclusion: Amen brother! Now whyweren't you saying this two or three years ago when Powell waspursuing this reform agenda at the FCC against significant opposition? But again,better late than never. With any luck President Bush will continueto stand by Powell and his bold liberalization agenda for broadbandand telecommunications.

Will This Be the End of It? President Bushdeserves some credit for finally getting at least a little moreserious about broadband and Internet policy. However, one hopesthis is not the end of it but just the beginning. While broadbandreform will never make for a good stump speech or a bumper stickerslogan, it is still vitally important to the future of ourInformation Age economy.

There are signs that the Democratic presidential candidate Sen.John Kerry (D-MA) will be staking out his own broadband agenda incoming weeks and months, so there may be more to come. Kerry willlikely support many of the same reform proposals Bush outlined thisweek but go further in terms of pushing a more activist role forWashington as promoter and subsidizer of broadband to the masses.This is where the Bush team will face a decisive moment of truth:Do they want to follow suit and just get in a broadband spendingwar with Kerry, or will President Bush make an effort to prove thatthe Republican Party really can be the party of smaller governmentby proposing the comprehensive deregulation of communications andbroadband?

There were moments during President Bush's recent speech andpress release where he sounded like a Democrat in calling for"universal broadband" coverage by 2007, which is probably notpossible anyway since not every American wants or needs broadbandin the home. And Bush also talks up the idea that broadbandtechnology must be affordable "to make sure it gets spread to allcorners of the country." Well, what if it isn't? After all, it'snot exactly cheap to deploy expensive high-speed networkscoast-to-coast. If prices don't fall below $40 per month, shouldgovernment impose price controls? Let's hope Bush is just being apolitician here and not really advocating a command-and-controlregime for broadband. Indeed, perhaps the most heartening moment inhis speech came when he noted that the "proper role for thegovernment is to clear regulatory hurdles so those who are going tomake investments do so." "Broadband is going to spread," hecontinued, "because it's going to make sense for private sectorcompanies to spread it so long as the regulatory burden isreduced-in other words, so long as policy at the government levelencourages people to invest" instead of discouraginginvestment.

Here's hoping that the president sticks to his guns on thatpromise.