Academics Skewer U.S. Broadband Record

WASHINGTON — It was only a matter of time before the academics got involved in the debate around U.S. broadband and communications policy. And today, they warned that a lot more needs to happen to get the nation back on track.

“I often wonder what the fate would be of a CEO who doesn’t set goals for the corporation he or she leads. But there are no goals for broadband penetration in America,” Amit Schejter, an assistant professor at Penn State University, said during remarks today here at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

For months, public-interest groups in Washington have been lining up IT and telecom policy agendas in anticipation of the new administration, with many seeking to push for greater funding for greater access to broadband. Today, more than a dozen scholars from major research universities added their voices to the chorus.

Schejter was on-hand to introduce “And Communications for All,” a collection of policy essays by 16 scholars from 11 research universities, covering topics ranging from broadband deployment to media reform. As the government considers communications issues, Schejter said he’s hoping policymakers bring the university community into the conversation to help define their goals.

“If there are no goals, how will we know if the policy is successful?” he added. “How will we know if we even need a policy?”

A chief thrust of “And Communications for All” is that broadband will be the conduit for all forms of communications in the 21st century, so they are calling on the administration to ensure that it is affordable, ubiquitous and open to all forms of content.

Broadband policy is already one of the issues under consideration in the new administration. President Obama has called for the government to take action to spur broadband deployment and adoption, and the House has included $6 billion to that end in the economic stimulus bill it is now debating.

Recent studies have indicated that the United States is falling far behind Japan, South Korea and other foreign competitors in connection speeds and adoption. In response, lawmakers and policy advocates have pushed broadband policy to the top of the administration’s technology agenda.

“There is common agreement that when it comes to building our nation’s communications infrastructure, and making it work for the American public, there is a need for deliberative government policy,” said Schejter, who coordinated the collection.

Schejter said that his team circulated galley copies of “And Communications for All” to policymakers and members of the Obama transition team shortly after the election.

He added that the book, which contains specific recommendations for how the Federal Communications Commission and other government organizations can update communications policy, was a purely academic research endeavor that received no corporate funding.

On hand to praise the researchers’ work was Jonathan Adelstein, a Democratic commissioner at the FCC who said the book was “a fantastic compilation” and that the launch of a comprehensive new agenda was “perfectly timed.”

Time of transition for the FCC

Many of the positions advocated in the book, such as promoting competition among ISPs, media diversity and non-discriminatory network management, are issues Adelstein has long supported, though he said he has often been frustrated by their slow progress at his time at the FCC.

“We’ve got to upgrade our communications infrastructure in every corner of this country. We’ve got to do a better job of making innovative communications technology more widely available and more affordable,” Adelstein said. “All of those big challenges that were debated throughout this campaign can be addressed, to some extent, through improvements in our telecommunications infrastructure, and improving the environment for our media as well.”

[cob:Special_Report]The FCC, which will be at the center of the policy fights over many of the issues outlined in the book, is in a time of transition. Following the recent departures of Republican Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, also a Republican, the five-person commission was reduced to three.

Last week, Obama elevated Commissioner Michael Copps to interim chairman, and is expected to nominate Julius Genachowski as permanent chairman.

Adelstein was not shy in expressing his disdain for the way the FCC has been run in recent years, but said he’s confident that things are about to change.

“I’m really looking forward to a new era of openness at the FCC,” he said. “We can now engage the academic community — and our own outstanding staff, who have so many good ideas — in a vigorous debate about how to accomplish the goals that we share.”

With Copps now leading the agency, “glasnost at the commission has already begun,” Adelstein proclaimed, adding with evident enthusiasm that the interim chairman has “signaled a new openness where the staff can freely share and debate ideas with each other and with the leadership of the commission. Ideas like those we will hear today can now be debated internally without fear or intimidation.”

Adelstein was referring to what critics of outgoing chair Martin have described as a culture of secrecy and ideological repression they say he cultivated in the agency.

Following Obama’s presumed nomination of Genachowski and a fifth commissioner, both will have to be confirmed by the Senate, a process that could take several weeks or months.

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