'Unserved' Rather Than 'Underserved' Are Critical for Broadband Expansion, Comcast's Cohen Urges

Net neutrality debate 'is over,' nationwide privacy policy needed, antitrust should extend to tech companies, Cohen contends
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Government support - especially at the state level - is vital to achieve the objective of universal broadband availability, with a special focus on "unserved" areas, Comcast senior executive vice president David Cohen said at the monthly luncheon program of the Media Institute in Washington. He emphasized that low-population rural areas, Indian reservations and other territories with no high-speed internet access - accounting for about 7% of the U.S. population - need service, not just the "underserved" urban areas where potential customers opt not to buy broadband access.

David Cohen at Media Institute

David Cohen at Media Institute

Cohen's wide-ranging remarks also emphasized the "need for a real federal standard" on digital privacy, rather than allowing state-by-state rules (such as the looming California Consumer Privacy Act) create nationwide policy chaos.  He cautioned against the "classic mistake" of legislating privacy based on past situations. Cohen encouraged a "design for a privacy framework" that looks ahead two to five years.

"Consumers deserve one set of fair, understandable federal legal protections that apply to the entire internet ecosystem," Cohen said, calling for "rules that are consistent in every part of our country, rules that are uniform, transparent, and easily understandable."

As for net neutrality, Cohen deemed that "this debate is now over -- even outdated."

"There’s almost universal consensus that we need binding federal legislation that prohibits blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization," he contended. "But we haven’t been able to get to the goal-line because the issue has become an ideological football."

"We need to move past the small ball politics of these issues, pass laws to protect consumers, and move on to bigger things," he added, without prognosticating on any legislative game plan that would accomplish those goals.

The lobbyist-turned-corporate executive warned at the start of his prepared remarks that he was "not going to dwell on a litany of public policy minutae" at the Nov. 14 gathering. He focused instead on high-minded global issues such as international competition, China's ambitious artificial intelligence agenda and the value of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in modern education. But during a lively Q&A session after his formal speech, Cohen confronted timely topics about high-tech antitrust suits and privacy.

Regarding antitrust or other actions to restrict high-tech companies such as Google, Amazon and Apple, Cohen said, "I prefer not to look at it in the old computer dynamic but in the new internet ecosystem dynamic."

"It's a matter of whether tech companies should be subject to antitrust [rules] as we have been forever," he said, adding that there should be no exemptions. Cohen expressed the belief that competition​ will help to increase access to services.

Broadband to the 'Unserved'

Wearing his hat as Comcast's chief diversity officer, Cohen emphasized that building broadband to the totally unserved should be a higher priority than boosting penetration in "underserved" communities.

"The cruel irony of the digital divide is that the more the internet advances, the further behind it leaves people without home internet connections - the very people who would most benefit from its equalizing potential," Cohen said. Frequently citing Comcast's Internet Essentials program to help low-income Americans get online access, he stressed the value of broadband for delivery of education, workforce development and other services.

"Federal money will be important, but not essential," Cohen said. He suggested that state funds - possibly bolstered by "partnering with private entities" could extend broadband's reach into the unserved areas. He expects that state funds cold be "leveraged and extended" via partnerships with the private sector, but he offered no specific examples of commitments by his firm to such ventures.

Much​ ​of Cohen's speech explored issues such as the lack of civility in the policy arena, where he himself fought enthusiastically in recent years. He also discussed at leng​th how taken he was with Kai-Fu Lee's new book about artificial intelligence, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Cohen cited the Chinese encouragement of STEM education, which has led to 4.7 million recent college graduates in STEM in China, "nearly 10 times as many as we have graduated in the United States." He quoted a Pricewaterhouse Cooper​s​ prediction that AI will add $15.7 trillion to the global GDP by 2030.

"That’s almost the size of the world’s largest economy – ours! – today," he said, and then brought in AI's significance:

"Kai-Fu Lee foresees that artificial intelligence will replace 40% to 50% of all existing jobs in the U.S.," Cohen said.

Diversity Success

Cohen praised Comcast's role in promoting diversity and inclusiveness, noting that only five of the S&P 500 companies have someone with his new title, chief diversity officer. He said that last year, 71% of Comcast's new hires were women or people of color.

"At the level of vice president or higher, more than half are diverse – 21% people of color and 39% women," he said, adding that "my new favorite" diversity datapoint is that 53% of Comcast’s workforce reports to a diverse leader.

"We know that diverse leadership attracts more diverse talent," Cohen said.

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