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Why our broadband policy's still a mess

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps faults both the government and private sector for failing to advance broadband access.

Broadband is booming, DSL prices are dropping and cable modem speeds are increasing without additional charge.

But to Michael Copps, one of two Democrats on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, that's not enough. As a policy-maker, Copps is outraged that the United States isn't near the top of countries with broadband penetration. While admitting the difficulty in comparing the United States with Japan, Korea or Norway, Copps also voices the growing restlessness of government officials who fret about the private sector's ability to ensure that all Americans get access to broadband.

Big changes are reshaping the telecom industry. Giant mergers--SBC Communications acquiring AT&T, Verizon Communications swallowing MCI--raise huge questions about how consumers will be affected. More local-government efforts to create their own broadband networks are facing fierce resistance from the Baby Bells and cable companies such as Comcast.

Calling broadband "the most central infrastructure challenge facing the country right now," Copps is wrestling with how to turn the United States into the most connected country in the world. Can private industries do it themselves, or will it take a regulatory prod to get there? Copps recently spoke with CNET about these issues, as well as the recent complaints of Internet phone service Vonage that it's not getting a fair shake from local phone companies.

Looking at the state of broadband from the consumer perspective, is adoption at a good point right now?
Well, if I was a consumer I would say, "Why in the hell is the United States No. 13 and heading south in broadband deployment? Why are folks in Korea and Japan maybe getting 10 times the capacity at a half or a third or a quarter of the price? I am paying for the slow setup I've got--that is called high-speed broadband?"

I don't think there is that much satisfaction with the situation we're in...I think we may be probably the only industrial country on the face of God's green earth that doesn't have a national plan for broadband deployment. We recently got a commitment on a goal, on an objective. But an objective and a strategy are two vastly dissimilar things.

What makes sense in terms of a national broadband policy?
I think Congress is going to have to work through that. If we are going to fix the Universal Service system, which is predicated on the idea that everybody should have access to comparable communications at comparable and reasonable prices, we have to ask, is our advanced telecommunications part of that or not? Is broadband a part of that or not? So before we start fixing every little problem with universal service I think we ought to have some kind of a philosophical or national purpose or national objective discussion about where does broadband fit in.

I think we may be probably the only industrial country on the face of God's green earth that doesn't have a national plan for broadband deployment.

And when I talk about central-infrastructure challenge, you know it seems like each generation faces an infrastructure challenge. Before the Civil War, we had infrastructure challenges and building internal improvements of highways and turnpikes and canals. After the Civil War, it was building transcontinental railroads. With the Eisenhower years, we built the national highway system. I think our (challenge) is broadband.

At the same time, the state legislature in Indiana recently shot down a bill that would impose significant restrictions on municipalities for launching their own broadband infrastructure services.
It's not an easy thing if you're the leader of a hard-pressed, cash-strapped municipality--as all of them are in this day and age--to take on additional burden of providing broadband to your people.

I think we do a grave injustice in trying to hobble municipalities. That's an entrepreneurial approach, that's an innovative approach. Why don't we encourage that instead of having bills introduced--"Oh, you can't do this because it's interfering with somebody's idea of the functioning of the marketplace." And then the marketplace is not functioning in those places.

The Bells say that government should not be competing with the private sector.
They are not out there trying to put broadband in the municipality. Where is the competition?

The Bells also say they're trying to protect residents from being unfairly taxed if such an infrastructure were to go belly-up.
Well, a municipality is a democratically run institution. They can make their own decisions. They don't need the Bells. They don't need the Administration, and they don't need me telling them what kind of decision they should be making.

So, is this a state-by-state, locality-by-locality issue or is this more of a federal issue? Or do you think this could become a federal issue?
I suppose it could. I think in the first instance, that's a municipal and a state thing. That's why you have state legislatures planning and deciding on this. But that doesn't mean that it's beyond the imagination.

Well, that also brings up the question of the digital divide. A lot of the efforts going on in Philadelphia, according to that city's CIO, Dianah Neff, are to really offer affordable broadband to people in lower-income areas.
Absolutely. I have seen some of what they are doing up there.

What is your take on it?
I think anybody getting broadband to the inner-city and to all segments of the population is performing a public service.

You've been very outspoken about network neutrality. You had some comments about that today, during your speech.
I've been outspoken about the principle of nondiscrimination. I think that's the first step we have to take and for everybody to agree on that. I spoke about this a year or two ago. I was happy to see (FCC Chairman Michael) Powell give similar remarks and commitment to that principle of nondiscrimination--open access or network neutrality. I think Chairman Powell talks a lot about best practices and voluntary guidelines and things like that, and you'd like to hope that that would be sufficient.

But then you read something in the paper, like the complaint that Vonage may file with the commission, and you realize that maybe there is a problem out there and maybe we ought to ask ourselves a question: Is all this really going to take care of itself without some sort of more imaginative or innovative approach from the commission?

Have you actually spoken directly with Vonage about this issue?
Not the particular complaint, no.

Is this something that the FCC is looking to?
I'm not going to talk about where we are. I guess Chairman Powell said we were on the case the other day, but I haven't seen the complaint.

Do you believe that the AT&T-SBC and MCI-Verizon proposals are good for competition? Are they good for consumers?
I can't comment on a specific merger. Those mergers are going to be before the commission and my duty is to look at the record, look at the environment and when it's time, come to a decision.

Will I look at them seriously? Yes. Will I look at the impact upon competition? Yes. Will I look at all of the economic effects that this might have? Yes.

Final question. What's the time frame for digital television and spectrum and the conversion of analog to digital?
I think we are going to have to hear from Congress on that. We have a hard date now but then you also have the 85 percent contingency in there. I don't think there is sentiment on Capitol Hill to discuss the idea of a hard date. I think there are those who want to do that, and there are also those who are still thinking about digital television and getting high-definition TV in vogue. So we are just going to have to see how that plays out in the year 2005.