BOULDER, Colo. — Here at the Silicon Flatirons telecom policy conference, you don’t need to convince anyone about the importance of broadband policy and all its related aftereffects. The real challenge, of course, is making broadband issues matter to the outside world, especially when a pending change in the White House presents an opportunity to bring real leadership and vision to the country’s information policy direction.
From both sides of the political aisle, and from all different competitive parts of the industry, there was violent agreement here during Sunday’s sessions about the need to elevate the image of broadband policy in the ongoing political process. While other hot-button issues like the war in Iraq, health care and education rightly are political priorities, the ability for broadband to enable and improve all the other directives means it’s time to stop ignoring the need for leadership and vision in information technology — even if the topic is as boring as hell.
“Broadband… is really boring,” said Kevin Werbach, eliciting no small amount of nervous laughter as the assembled policy wonks here confronted one of their biggest hurdles: How to make a topic filled with arcane legal and technical underpinnings simple and understandable enough to include in a campaign stump speech. According to Verizon senior vice president Kathryn Brown, one way to do that is to show how broadband can improve and enable other areas of concern, like health care and distance learning.
“You have to show people how it works,” said Brown, perhaps through demonstrations of broadband-enabled doctoring or remote education. Then, broadband might move up the chart of political issues, Brown said: “It ought not to be the fourth [topic], it should at least be number two — since it’s the tool you need to transform all those other things.”
FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called for a national broadband summit, led perhaps by Congress or by the Presidential candidates, to “bring all the players together” in an attempt to build a shared vision for the country’s information policy future.
“There isn’t a clear awarenesss of the benefits of broadband — health care for rural areas, distance learning, the environment,” Adelstein said. “Congress needs to take the lead here and help focus the attention of the [Presidential] candidates. It just needs to be a higher national priority than it is.”
And Comcast vice president Joe Waz said such a summit shouldn’t be a meeting of just politicians and policy wonks. “The Department of Education should be at the table, and so should HHS, Medicare and veterans’ groups,” Waz said. “The EPA should be there, to talk about how broadband could reduce carbon footprints. The centerpiece should not be about how to regulate networks, but how to make broadband ubiquitous. It shouldn’t just be about national broadband regulation, but a broadband opportunity summit.”
Since the entire Silicon Flatirons conference agenda was designed to act as a blueprint-builder for the next administration’s information policy, there were great into-the-weeds sessions on discrete topics like spectrum allocation, privacy and security, network neutrality and intellectual property. (Look for more-detailed reporting in each of these areas in a forthcoming Sidecut Report.) The next question to answer, event organizer Phil Weiser asked, is why these issues haven’t “penetrated into the intelligensia” leading the overall political discourse.
FTC commissioner Jon Leibowitz observed that since mainstream press typically focuses on problems, it’s hard to gain attention for broadband issues since from an overall view, Internet access generally seems to be growing and improving.
“The nature of the press, public and government is to look at where there is misery,” Leibowitz said. A national summit, he said, could help bring together agency experts who could (in a very public fashion) tell political leaders about the need for clear policies and vision on what to do in new areas of concern like ensuring the integrity of data collected online, and protection of online consumers. “These are some of the things that Congress should be focused on,” Leibowitz said.
Werbach compared broadband to other “boring” but important subjects like energy, health care and monetary policy. “We need vision, especially coming from the White House and Congress, about why it [broadband] is so important,” Werbach said.