Edwards (and Gore) take a stand on spectrum policy

by Art Brodsky, TPM Cafe

For the most part, telecommunications issues tend to be very complex and, as a result, very hidden from public view. They are important, to be sure, but they are not usually the types of things that reporters for print publications want to get into, and they are certainly not fit for television or cable news -- particularly if the television or cable industries are involved.

So it was with a certain amount of disbelief on my part when I saw that Democratic candidate John Edwards had actually come out with a public letter to the Federal Communications Commission on one of the most arcane issues of them all -- spectrum policy. I'm glad it was noted over at Election Central, because this is notable for two reasons.

First, it is notable because it exists. That is nothing but miraculous. Most active legislators don't care about this stuff. Presidential candidates never do -- until now. The Obama campaign has a telecom policy advisory group, but even they haven't gone this far.

What is also worthwhile is that it was the Edwards camp that contacted public-interest experts in the field for help. That shows an unusual awareness of a very important issue.

Second, the letter is notable because it's absolutely right on the substance -- the campaign talked to the right people. In a month or so, the FCC is going to set the rules for one of the biggest auctions of spectrum licenses ever. This will be for the slices of the airwaves now used by TV broadcasters, but which will be turned back to the government in time for TV to go all-digital by Feb. 2009.

Broadcasters, of course, occupy the prime real estate of the Second Life world of spectrum. The signals go long distances, travel through walls, and have other great properties that make it just dandy for any number of services that creative innovators could devise. We just have to make sure that creative innovators have the chance to devise them.

That's what the Edwards letter was about, and that's what public-interest groups, including my day-job employer Public Knowledge, along with others in our community, are trying to accomplish. We, along with Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, EDUCAUSE, Free Press, Media Access Project, New America Foundation and U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told the FCC what types of rules were needed to give bidders other than the incumbent cellular carriers like Verizon and AT&T a shot at using the spectrum. The idea is that a new company, or companies, could use the spectrum to compete with the existing companies to offer high-speed Internet, or other services.

In his letter, Edwards had it exactly right, and we congratulate him for that.

The other appearance of a telecom issue on the national stage came from our old friend Al Gore, the highest-ranking government techie ever. That's a compliment.

In his new book, "The Assault on Reason," Gore talks about the breakdown of public debate over a whole range of issues. One of the remedies, he said, is that: "We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the World Wide Web."

This is the issue called "Net Neutrality," which says that you, the customer, should choose what information you see, which services you use and not the company which owns the telephone or cable network you are using.

There's more in the chapter entitled "A Well-Connected Citizenry" near the end of the book.

OK, this isn't global warming, or the war. But the acknowledgement that the fundamental means by which we communicate are in danger of being taken from us is significant. Gore, too, reached out to the public-interest community and came up with the right message. Edwards and Gore are to be congratulated for bringing it to the public forum.

It would be nice if the other candidates stepped up and gave us their vision of the Internet as well. I'm not holding my breath, but if any readers happen across candidates in Iowa, Nevada or New Hampshire, to name a couple of places, and get the chance to ask, let us know.

article originally published at http://www.tpmcafe.com/blog/coffeehouse/2007/may/31/john_edwards_and_spectrum.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey