Will Congress Ever Deregulate Broadband?

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Surveys reveal that Americans want high-speed connections to theInternet - - and they want them now. But two major obstacles standin the way. First, many Americans are not willing to pony up thecash to pay for those services. Second, policy makers are not yetwilling to let some communications companies provide broadbandservices, even if consumers are willing to pay.

At least part of this equation may be set to change as the Houseof Representatives took fast action during the last week of Aprilto move a pro-deregulatory measure that would make it legal forregional Bell operating companies to offer consumers high-speedbroadband services across long-distance boundaries.

The bill, H.R. 1542, The Internet Freedom and BroadbandDeployment Act of 2001, is sponsored by House Energy and CommerceChairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and ranking member John Dingell,(D-Mich.). The Tauzin-Dingell bill would level the playing field byallowing Baby Bell companies to provide customers with broadbandservices the same way cable and satellite companies are currentlyallowed to. A similar version of the bill garnered over 220cosponsors in the House last year but did not achieve final passagedue to lack of interest in the Senate.

Although not perfect, the bill is still an important first steptoward guaranteeing that more Americans have access to thebroadband services they desire. Here's why. Imagine you live in asmall town; call it Sleepytown, USA. There aren't a lot of telecomproviders in your area, in fact, your local telephone company isreally the only show in town. Nonetheless, they may be able to hookyour home up to a high-speed broadband connection.

Here's the problem. To hook you up, that telephone company mayhave to cross an imaginary regulatory boundary on a map called aninterLATA line. Over 150 of these interLATA lines were sketched outby a judge in the early 1980s in an attempt to quarantine the BabyBells within the local telephone market and keep them out of thelong-distance business.

Today, these lines prohibit the Bells from offering broadbandservices to consumers in countless communities like Sleepytownbecause it is illegal for them to cross those old interLATA linesscribbled on some regulator's map down at the FCC. Let me repeatthat: It would be a crime for the Bells to offer you high-speedInternet access over these illogical boundaries.

A little crazy, huh? That's why the Tauzin-Dingell bill proposesto end these illogical prohibitions and decriminalize the provisionof broadband service to these communities by the Baby Bells. Thebill also rejects infrastructure socialism by ensuring that"line-sharing" requirements cannot be applied to broadbandofferings. Such forced access requirements would discourageinnovation since the Bells would have to share with theircompetitors the new broadband services they develop.

At this point you may be thinking that I'm a lackey for the BabyBell behemoths that would most benefit from this sort ofderegulation. Guess again. I don't really need my local telephoneprovider. I don't have anything against them, I just don't likehaving a lot of wires coming into my home.

So, I'm doing something about it. I've started ripping cable andtelephone wires out of my house and have bought two satellitedishes and two cell phones instead. Today, I get my telephoneservice, entertainment services, and data and Internet servicesthrough these wireless devices. I don't really need my local phonecompany or cable provider for broadband or much of anything elseanymore. I do, however, have to pony up a little extra cash eachmonth for these advanced services.

While my house is likely to represent the home of the future,not everyone has access to these same wireless options today(although most homes soon will). In the meantime, it is importantto allow Americans who want broadband, and who can only get it fromtheir local telephone company, to be able to do so. It is foolishpublic policy to deny citizens the right to purchase technologiesand services that are at their disposal.

Which leads back to the question, will Americans be willing topick up the tab associated with high-speed access to the home?Let's face it, it costs a lot of money to string wires across thecountry or launch satellites into space in an effort to provideconsumers with fast Net access. Companies will expect to becompensated for the costs associated with these investments.

Regrettably, however, everyone's looking for a free Internetlunch. But as ZDNet.com technology columnist David Coursey asks,"What makes you think you deserve free Internet anything?" Goodquestion. Can any of us make a moral claim to the "right" toinexpensive or free communications technologies and Internetservices?

Deregulation is vital to ensure that companies are given thefreedom to innovate and offer consumers the full range ofcommunications and data services they desire. But, at the end ofthe day, consumers must be willing to pay for those services. Theonly way we'll ever find out how much broadband Americans reallywant is to comprehensively deregulate this marketplace, as theTauzin-Dingell bill does, and then watch and see what happens.