From the standpoint of the communications industry, it may make minimal difference who wins the presidency, based on the comments of three former FCC commissioners, each an advisor to one of the three remaining candidates.
Hillary Clinton is said to view broadband deployment as useful in and of itself, but also as part and parcel of her health initiative. John McCain is likely to articulate a vision of growth with minimal interference and maximum incentive for growth and progress. Similar to Clinton, Barack Obama views broadband deployment as a means of economic development, and as a means of bringing medical services to rural and undeveloped areas.
Susan Ness, a commissioner from 1994-2001, spoke for the Clinton campaign. Michael Powell, a commissioner from 1997-2001 and chairman 2001-2005, represented McCain; and Bill Kennard, FCC chairman from 1997-2001, was proxy for Obama.
The panel was moderated by Susan Abernathy, another former commissioner (2001-05), who toward the end of the session remarked on the “raging agreement” among the panelists.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference had there been more sparks, though. As Kennard noted later in the afternoon, “The interesting thing about elections is that they are not won or lost on telecommunications policy.”
One of the points of agreement is that it will be a relief to get rid of Kevin Martin, though the current FCC chairman was never mentioned by name. Kennard and Ness made several oblique references to Martin that elicited snickers from the audience. Powell mostly refrained from sniping but was in explicit agreement with his former colleagues that the FCC in recent years has become far too partisan to be functional.
All three candidates are likely to appoint as commissioners people who have expertise in the communications market and who will follow the law – that last point an implicit criticism of Martin.
All three candidates are likely to use tax policy to create incentives to encourage R&D specifically, and also innovation in general.
The proxies for Clinton and Obama said they’d both look at expanding the use of the USDA’s RUS program – essentially a utilities program – as a vehicle to encourage further broadband deployment in rural areas.
Parsing the statements of politicians can sometimes be difficult, but it is possible that McCain would not use the RUS program as the other two would. McCain does not believe that broadband should be considered, or treated, as a utility, Powell said. “Education policy should be broadband policy,” he said. “Health policy should be broadband policy.”
Obama’s Web site says that he would revise the rules of the Universal Service Fund (USF), under which every traditional phone subscriber is charged a fee, and the money is used to subsidize connectivity for remote subscribers who otherwise could not afford to get service. Obama says he would like to have the USF cover broadband connectivity.
Powell said McCain believes the role of the president is to create a climate in which growth is possible, tying broadband policy in to traditional Republican themes of the availability of capital, free trade and cutting taxes.
All candidates believe that broadband companies should operate with non-discriminatory policies, but all three candidates’ advisors clearly understood that it is vital for service providers to manage their networks. All three were wary of imposing rules that might inhibit growth or innovation.
Powell said that at some of the public discussions on network neutrality, he had watched engineers disagreeing vociferously about what might be considered discrimination to which bits and bytes. His conclusion was that if there’s that much confusion at that level, the issue cannot be solved by writing a new law or regulation. “When things are that confused,” he said, “that’s the best time to keep your pen in your pocket.”
Abernathy brought up a la carte – a pet concern of the current FCC chairman. The notion is to let customers subscribe only to those channels they want. Most analyses of the scheme conclude that it would undermine minority and women’s programming and raise costs instead of lower them.
All four former commissioners on the panel had considered a la carte and rejected it. Kennard said Obama has no official position on the subject, however. Powell said McCain definitely has a position – he’s against it. “It’s inadvertent rate regulation masquerading as something else,” he said.
Ness expressed surprise at the fact that in 10 years, the definition of broadband is still 200 kbps (the current FCC is considering a proposal to increase that).
Kennard noted that as Obama continues his campaign, he is likely to talk about indecency, and he is likely to propose that the solution be technological.
Ness recalled that while she was with the FCC, cable modems were introduced. The big question was what to do with cable modems. The commission’s decision was: “Nothing. Leave them alone.”
It was the right decision, Ness said. “I imagine that with a Clinton administration, the FCC would agree with those values.”
Powell said McCain feels strongly about not doing anything that constitutes censorship, and that he also expects indecency issues to be solved by technological means.
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