Kerry Calls for Increased Federal Role in Telecom

Published June 1, 2009

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) told cable executives at the annual convention of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association he will promote a doubling of investments in science and technology, including broadband.

Kerry, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, touted in his April speech the $7.2 billion earmarked for broadband development in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a “down payment to deliver broadband to rural Americans who can’t access it and urban Americans who can’t afford it.”

The logic behind Kerry’s push for broadband extension is faulty, says Ken Ferree, president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC.

“The reality is that the vast majority of the country is served by at least one broadband provider and new wireless and satellite technologies are making broadband services more accessible in rural areas every day,” Ferree said.

Even if there is a short-term benefit to government broadband promotion, “it is likely more than offset by the potential for mischief and long-term negative consequences of government intervention in this market,” Ferree added.

Demand Isn’t Universal
Patrick Ross, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, says consumer demand is not strong enough to justify a press for universal broadband adoption.

“While universal broadband penetration is laudable and achievable, universal broadband adoption is not reasonable,” Ross said.

Ross noted demand might not be there even if broadband were provided for free. He cited FCC phone adoption surveys where “about 3 percent of the population simply has no interest in having a telephone in their house” as an example of the importance of acknowledging the effectiveness of market forces in broadband adoption.

Mirroring Muni Wi-Fi Failures
Derek Bambauer, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, says the long history of failed municipal wi-fi projects should serve as a warning against massive government investment in a field best left to the private sector.

“Municipal wireless has a poor record so far, and the current economic crisis is likely to inhibit [Kerry’s] efforts,” Bambauer said. “The track record [of public-private partnerships] to date is not encouraging.”

“Just about all of [municipal wi-fi projects] have been abysmal failures, costing local taxpayers a lot of money and discouraging competition from the private sector,” said Ross. “It is not clear that [cities and states] have the expertise to play a role in stimulating broadband deployment.”

Market Hasn’t Failed
Ferree fears Kerry and others have “rushed to adopt a government rescue plan for a perceived market failure” that isn’t real.

“The largest broadband providers in America invest billions of dollars every year to maintain and upgrade their networks,” Ferree said. “Where will the money come from to maintain and upgrade the networks built with 2009 stimulus dollars?

It would be better, Ferree said, for the government to “get out of the way rather than trying to micromanage deployment with specific stimulus grants.”

Nicholas Katers ([email protected]) writes from Wisconsin.