Obama's "Scary" Telecom Policy - We Used to Call it Public Policy

Carolyn Schuk : VoIP Princess Blog
Carolyn Schuk
| News and views on the world of IP communications from the VoIP Princess, Carolyn Schuk.

Obama's "Scary" Telecom Policy - We Used to Call it Public Policy

I know it's a little late to be offering commentary on the recent election, but I just got back from the RealClearPolitics.com Recovery Center.

So I have to crow a little - OK, more than a little - about being right that Obama would win, and win big. And I do not think it was only because the financial system collapsed, turning everyone into a "socialist."

I'm sticking to my guns that the pollsters' November surprise was due in part to the "cell phone effect" I noted last summer. Of course, it's hard to prove - after all, it's logically impossible to take a telephone poll of people who don't have telephones. Maybe the pollsters will cotton to that by 2012.

But the fact of how communication has changed is indisputable - at least to those of us who know how to find the power switch on a computer.

Barack Obama has been hailed for his brilliance in using new media. But as highly as I rate the president-elect's intelligence, this gives credit where none is due.  It's the folks who think Obama's use of new media is breathtakingly clever who are out of the mainstream.

Personally, I rejoice that actuarial tables say there is virtually zero probability that anyone who remembers when direct dialing was state-of-the-art will ever again be president.

And speaking of guys who yearn for the bygone days of "Number please," the $50 transatlantic phone call, and the Bell System monopoly, Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse told the Washington Post last month that "his [Obama's] stated position on network management 'should scare' executives the most." 

Perhaps Hesse failed to notice that ominous warnings of Stalinism on the March haven't been winners lately, or that we've recently nationalized the banking industry and the domestic automotive industry is asking for their turn at the public trough.

The Post continues: "Industry observers and executives say they believe Obama will focus strongly on telecom issues such as network management, as well as bringing broadband service to rural and other underserved areas."

Talk about scary. I mean, to suggest that a public resource - the airways - should be subject to considerations of public interest...why, the next step will be forced collectivization, Five Year Plans, and children spying on their parents.

But now that the end of the Bush Imprisonment is in sight, let's try - just try - to clear the right-wing smog and return to reason as a guide for public policy instead of the Left Behind novels of that giant of modern letters and End Times theocrat Tim LaHaye.

For most of the history of telecommunications it was not considered outrageous to suggest that entities enjoying the benefits of doing business in the United States should, in return, be subject to considerations of the public interest.

That's why I can publish this on the Internet where it can be read by anyone in the world instead of in some mimeographed newsletter read by all of six people in a Greenwich Village coffee house. In the 1968 Carterfone decision the FCC ruled that even if Bell Telephone had built the communications infrastructure, the company had enjoyed a long and profitable monopoly and it was in the public interest to open it up to any device that could "talk" over it.

Only someone whose brain has been softened by the Great Reactionary Leap Backwards of the last 30 or so years can seriously suggest that expanding low-cost broadband to "rural and underserved areas" constitutes a clear and present danger to Mom, Apple Pie and The American Way of Life. 

It's hardly radical to observe that when something becomes ubiquitous, those who don't have access to it become second-class citizens.

When no one had indoor running water, living with an outhouse wasn't a hardship. However, when everyone has plumbing and you're so poor you can't afford to install it, an outhouse is a hardship. Likewise electricity, central heating, and the telephone.

Today, if the only access you have to the Internet is through a very expensive satellite service that you can't afford, you're outside life's mainstream. 

So I would make a case that just like water, sewer - and in my hometown, Santa Clara, electricity - broadband should be provided as a matter of public good.

I'm not saying that every municipality should get into the telecommunications business.  There's more than one way to skin a cat. We can let a thousand flowers bloom and see which ones have staying power.

However, using Santa Clara again as a model, public utility ownership works very well, allowing the city to make long-term investments and set rates without concern for Wall Street and CNBC's talking heads.

Santa Clara started its own electric company in the early 1900s when the City Council got fed up with what the city was being charged for its street lights. Then, as now, there were naysayers promising that City would quickly become insolvent.

Instead the City thrived.

In the 1950s and 1960s PG&E came a-wooing, offering to relieve the City of the headache of running an electric company. While neighboring cities were happy to sell out, Santa Clara's unusually forward-thinking city administration - a Democratic mayor and a Republican City Manager, both occupying the same left-wing ideological geography as the Eisenhower administration - resisted PG&E's siren song.

Not only did Santa Clara retain ownership of its distribution grid, the city instead grew its utility, becoming an energy producer, and investing in renewable power sources long before it was fashionable.

These days, not only are our electric rates 30 percent less than our neighbors', we're also on our way to becoming self-sufficient in electricity, with power to contribute to the state grid during high usage periods.

I've heard recently that Santa Clara is considering a citywide WiFi service. This follows now-defunct MetroFi's unsuccessful venture in delivering advertising-supported WiFi service. And I'm all in favor.

MetroFi's failure indicates that an ad-supported revenue model isn't going to bring ubiquitous broadband. And we know that the subscription model hasn't. So it hardly seems unreasonable to suggest taking a different road.

And maybe WiFi isn't the best way to go. Maybe we should use the power lines we own to deliver broadband over power line. Or maybe WiMax is where we should invest.

The point is that we're in control of our own destiny. And come to think of it, if you're Dan Hesse, maybe you should be afraid. A career of charging high rates for a commodity service probably won't get him a city job running Santa Clara's public broadband network.  

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