FCC fiddles while nation's broadband falls behind

by John Muletta, Seattle Times

As the economy of the mid-20th century boomed, government action to provide consumers with free over-the-air television and radio changed forever the way Americans engaged in the life of their nation.

For the first time, news and entertainment from around the corner and around the world were delivered directly into our living rooms. America became a truly interconnected society as our country's perspective on events like the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War were defined by the widespread adoption and availability of free consumer communication services.

In the 21st century, broadband has the potential to similarly reshape our democracy through the interactive power of the Internet. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is failing the American people in maximizing use of the airwaves to serve the "public interest."

When it comes to broadband communications, the FCC's policy is to consistently favor media megaconglomerates by throwing up roadblocks to competition and failing to protect consumers. The FCC has protected entrenched incumbents by building an obstacle course for innovative new entrants.

While the FCC coddles AT&T and Verizon, more than 100 million adults and their children still do not have broadband connections, and our country has fallen to 24th in the world — behind Estonia — in global broadband-adoption rankings.

Congress has found that broadband services in the United States are delivered by a duopoly of incumbent telephone and cable companies, leading to high prices and low adoption rates. Prices for broadband have only declined 10 percent over the past decade while prices for computing have dropped by more than 90 percent. Computer makers are regulated by the marketplace, while broadband providers are regulated by the FCC — and therein lies the problem.

The result is that broadband adoption has stalled at below 50 percent while the economic and racial disparities in connectivity have grown. In America today, poor, rural and black families have broadband service at half the rate of their rich, suburban and white counterparts. This is un-American and unacceptable.

Given this sad state of affairs, one might assume the FCC would be open to considering new and innovative approaches to using America's airwaves to spur broadband adoption. Sadly, this is not the case.

The experience of my company, M2Z Networks, is an example of how hard it is for innovative ideas to enter the marketplace. Backed by the same Silicon Valley innovators that brought you Amazon.com and Google, we proposed to build a free, fast and family-friendly nationwide wireless broadband Internet network without a government subsidy. Such an innovative service would be an unprecedented step toward breaking down the socioeconomic barriers that divide our country and extending the great opportunities of broadband into the homes of every American family.

Of course, these networks require licenses from the FCC to use the public airways. After 16 months of inaction, the FCC recently announced that it would need more time to consider our proposal — despite 50,000 Americans and hundreds of federal, state and local officials telling the FCC that our service was in the public interest.

Despite this overwhelming public support, the FCC sided with seven incumbent telephone companies that said a slow decision on our license application was in the public interest.

The real issue when it comes to broadband is that America's airwaves are managed by an FCC that is content to fiddle while American broadband falls behind.

The FCC's duty is to serve the public interest by promoting competition and protecting consumers through the use of the "public" airwaves. It is high time the FCC act in the public interest of American consumers and stop acquiescing to the special interests of incumbent phone companies and media conglomerates.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2003920381_fccmuleta03.html.

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