Broadband's Becoming A Political Hot Potato

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In 1960, we had the missile gap. In 2004, we just might have the megabit gap.

White House hopeful Sen. Joseph Lieberman complained last week that the Bush Administration has let broadband policy drift and said he plans to do something about it.

This week, the Connecticut Democrat — who ran for vice president in 2000, and lost in the closest race in modern times — plans to introduce legislation that would force the Bush White House to craft a broadband strategy within six months.

After that plan is unveiled, or maybe even before, Lieberman intends to showcase several additional bills designed to give marching orders to the Federal Communications Commission, as well as establish tax credits and research grants to spur broadband deployment and innovation. It's a bid to recover the investment and productivity gains of the Clinton Administration's final years.

Within eight years, Lieberman wants nothing less than affordable and universal high-speed Internet access throughout the U.S., on a network that operates at initial speeds of 10 megabits per second and then scales to 100 mbps by 2010. Today, cable modems run at 1.5 mbps, though congestion can slow the connection.

"I want to emphasize that while there is an ongoing competitive scramble to reach the lower broadband speeds, we need to also pay real attention to advanced broadband and to attaining those much higher speeds," Lieberman said in a May 28 statement.

PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS

National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Marc Osgoode Smith said the trade group was withholding comments until after Lieberman's bills have been introduced.

Lieberman has announced his interest in running for president in two years, assuming his 2000 running mate, Vice President Al Gore, declines a rematch with the Bush-Cheney ticket.

Is Lieberman ready to stump the nation, accusing the Bush White House of neglecting the broadband revolution and allowing other countries such as South Korea, Canada and Sweden to leap ahead, just as John F. Kennedy hammered Richard M. Nixon and the Eisenhower Administration for letting the Soviet Union move ahead in missile technology?

"Talking about the politics of this, it's not related in any way to any kind of interest he has in running for president," said Lieberman communications director Dan Gerstein.

High-speed Internet access is a new product that links home computers to the World Wide Web at speeds considered unimaginable on a broad scale just five years ago.

Cable-modem service alone passes more than 70 percent of U.S. households. Consumers pay $35 to $55 for a monthly subscription.

Conservatively, at least 10 million households take either cable-modem or digital subscriber line (DSL) service, according to government and industry data. Researcher Kinetic Strategies Inc. last week put the combined U.S. figure at about 12 million, with 8 million cable-modem customers and nearly 4 million residential DSL customers.

Some call this an amazing success story. Lieberman does not.

In a 62-page white paper prepared and released by his staff last week, Lieberman said the nation needs to build a lightning-fast data network to serve as the platform to "transform education, health care, government, entertainment and commerce."

But this goal won't be achieved, he said, unless the White House adopts "a coherent and comprehensive national strategy.

NO 'MAIN ST.' ISSUE

Broadband policy is not something that resonates with the mass of voters, and is not the kind of issue that a candidate Lieberman would include in his stump speech to woo voters, said Greg Simon, a former White House policy advisor to Gore.

"I don't think this is a Main Street issue yet by a long shot," Simon said. "I think the reason is that most people who need broadband get it at work.

"For people at home, so far, it's viewed as an entertainment medium rather than something that's critical for your health care or your livelihood, the way a telephone is."

Plunging into the broadband debate is mostly a matter of demonstrating personal interest and intellectual range in the subject to the sectors that care about it most.

"It is an issue for a lot of activists out there," he said. "It's an issue for Silicon Valley and Wall Street."

In fact, much in Lieberman's plan mirrors proposals embraced by a Silicon Valley-backed group called TechNet, run by former Rep. Rick White (R-Wash.)

If the White House is guilty of failing to articulate a strategy, as Lieberman maintains, the administration's various departments and agencies have not been ignoring the broadband issue.

In March, the FCC classified cable-modem service as an unregulated information service, though competitive access rules are still under review.

The agency also has several outstanding rulemakings intended to address the regulatory treatment of Baby Bell provision of DSL service, as well as the extent to which access rules that presently apply should be stripped away to place DSL and cable-modem service on the same regulatory footing.

FCC chairman Michael Powell, appointed by Bush, has labeled broadband policy his top priority, asserting he wants broadband providers to flourish in a minimally regulated space.

While nowhere near as powerful as the FCC, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration is conducting a broadband study that will likely inform any White House broadband blueprint that emerges.

ROSTER'S GROWING

There is a perception, though, that the White House has not taken a leadership position and has created a policy vacuum that a slew of lawmakers — not just Lieberman but Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. John Breaux (D-La.); and Reps. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) — has been all to happy to fill with their own takes on promoting broadband.

Last month, McCain, who was George W. Bush's principal opponent for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, was circulating draft legislation that would compel cable operators to open up their broadband data networks to competing Internet-service providers, under certain conditions.

"There needs to be a statement of direction from the government and it should come from the administration, stating a philosophic approach, goals and direction," Precusor Group telecommunications analyst Scott Cleland said. "There is not any one person in the Bush administration that has the passion and a personal focus on telecom issues like Vice President Gore did. That's not saying it's good or bad, it's just a fact."

But Cleland agreed with Simon that politicians should not expect broadband deployment to become a wedge issue that helps decide an election.

"Broadband is an important national issue, but in no way is it on a level with health care, education or terrorism," Cleland said.

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