We've seen the prescription for national health care reform shrivel from brain surgery to a bandage on the forehead. I fear that the FCC's National Broadband Plan could suffer the same fate. The lack of competition in broadband, both wired and wireless, is at the root of a myriad of evils, including poor service, overcharges, opaque billing, and a complete lack of service in parts of the country. But for all its good intentions, the plan postpones hard choices on how to fix a broken system, and this gives the carriers and others the opening they need to delay, dilute, and damage the plan's important goals.
"While the FCC does take some important steps toward a new framework for competition policy, many of the critical questions are deferred for further review," says Chris Riley, policy counsel for Free Press, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "We hope the plan will confront the competition problems directly and will include specific policies to put consumers first. Implementing the policies needed to bring every American affordable, robust broadband will require courageous leadership and a willingness to stand up to narrow corporate interests."
What's more, the 376-page plan [PDF] makes no mention of Net neutrality. And yes, I realize that Net neutrality is being considered by the FCC on a separate track, but there is yet no discernable to enact reforms and I fear that the commission missed a major opportunity to bring that crucial issue to the forefront.
I had a long conversation with Riley and other consumer advocates this week, and I want to be clear that the National Broadband Plan released to Congress this week is a promising start, according to people of good will who have given the matter a great deal of thought.
But the broadband industry has a huge amount of clout, often realized through expensive lobbying efforts and lavish campaign donations. Turning good intentions into real reform will require a bare-knuckle fight, and I'm not sure that the FCC and the Obama administration are ready for it.
The roots of today's broadband mess
In early 2009, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a National Broadband Plan to ensure every American has "access to broadband capability."