< A Man, a Plan - Broadband


Friday, March 19, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. When the subject is the infrastructure needed to rebuild America’s economy, President Barack Obama isn't speaking merely of roads and bridges, or even smart power grids.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It means expanding broadband lines across America so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with her counterparts anywhere in the world.

BOB GARFIELD: That'll be no mean feat. In South Korea and Hong Kong, Paris and London, Internet users enjoy download speeds up to ten times faster than commonly available here, at about a quarter of the price. And many countries have already committed themselves to providing their citizens with universal access. In terms of the connectivity required for the future of education, health care, technology and commerce, not to mention downloading an iPhone app, the U.S. lags far behind much of the world. Hence, the National Broadband Plan. Released this week by the Federal Communications Commission, it’s an ambitious 200-billion-dollar, ten-year roadmap for redistributing the broadcast spectrum, maximizing bandwidth, lowering prices for Internet, phone, and cable, and guaranteeing universal access to every mountaintop and hollow. It’s also already under attack, from broadcasters, business groups and especially consumer advocates.

BRUCE KUSHNICK: This is a great report by weight.

BOB GARFIELD: Bruce Kushnick is the chairman of TeleTruth, a consumer watchdog group.

BRUCE KUSHNICK: If you’d print it out, it’s heavy. You could use it as a doorstop. Or if you play piano, you could stick it under your butt and you could sit higher on the piano stool.

BOB GARFIELD: Kushnick believes the broadband plan is fatally flawed because it doesn't compel the giants of phone and cable to upgrade their networks and because, unlike in Europe, it doesn't force those telecom gorillas to lease their broadband pipes at wholesale rates to potential competitors.

BEN SCOTT: That’s why we can't get what you can get in Paris or London, 50 dollars for cable and Internet and phone, and a network that’s ten times better than ours. It’s because we don't have enough competition.

BOB GARFIELD: Ben Scott is the policy director for the media reform group Free Press.

BEN SCOTT: And the big difference is when foreign regulators tell their incumbent telephone companies to do something, they do it. When our government tells AT&T and Verizon to do something, they sue. And we've been tied up in courts for years over these questions. So it’s not surprising that the Commission just said, we'll deal with this later. But that’s the fundamental problem. Dealing with it later is a day late and a dollar short.

BOB GARFIELD: Or not. The FCC’s broadband guru Blair Levin insists these issues have been well thought-through.

BLAIR LEVIN: These people saying the porridge is too hot, now they're saying the porridge is too cold. We think we had it about right.

BOB GARFIELD: When it comes to stimulating competition, he says regulation isn't the only way to skin a cat. Another path is stimulating the sheer force of the marketplace in phone, cable and Internet, for instance, by pressuring TV stations to surrender unused or little-used spectrum for use in wireless broadband. With the development of faster so-called fourth generation wireless technology, he says, cable companies will be under pressure to match mobile’s download speeds. Meantime, on the cable TV side, gizmos that bring programming directly from the Internet to your TV for free may well pressure cable to reduce the programming fee portions of everybody’s overall bill.

BLAIR LEVIN: Companies like Apple or like Google are looking at very different business models that we think will provide a very interesting kind of competition, much in the way that, say, Skype created competition for international phone calling.

BOB GARFIELD: Perhaps, but the scolds continue to scold. The National Association of Broadcasters is none too pleased. Having been mandated by the federal government to spend billions for the white elephant of digital television, TV stations now are being asked to surrender potentially lucrative frequencies to phone companies. And gadflies like TeleTruth’s Bruce Kushnick, who have howled for years about the lack of oversight on the federal subsidies to telecom, sees just another feeding frenzy ahead.

BRUCE KUSHNICK: There is no regulator that takes my phone bill or your phone bill or your broadband bill and says, all right, where’s all the money going and how is it being used and where is it all ending up.

BOB GARFIELD: Come to think of it, the only interested parties to speak approvingly of the National Broadband Plan are [LAUGHS] the cable and phone companies, themselves. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, for example, quibbled with some details but generally praised the FCC’s plan, which has some people checking nervously for their wallets. The Free Press’ Ben Scott:

BEN SCOTT: It’s kind of like the health insurance industry cheering the healthcare bill. How big of a reform can it be if they think it’s great and they caused the problem we're trying to solve? [LAUGHS]

BOB GARFIELD: Another question might be even if the FCC reaches all of its targets, what exactly will have been gained? The stated goal is universal actual 100 megabits per second of download speed by the year 2020, which is exactly where South Korea is - today.