Kerry: Tech Is The Future

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Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) kicked off The 2009 Cable Show here at a dinner in which he said the cable industry needs to look beyond “the great telecommunications food fights that dominate Capitol Hill and K Street” to focus on the real key to their future: partnering with government on scientific and technological research.

Speaking at the National Cable & Telecommunications Associations’ Key Contact Conference/State Regional Executives Dinner, the chairman of the Senate Communications, Technology and Internet Subcommittee suggested looking beyond the trees to the “next horizon” for the telecommunications industry, which he said must be driven by renewed and sustained technology investment, particularly for improving broadband speeds and deployment, a necessity to help drive the economy.

He also warned against using current economic troubles to justify not making the investment in technology research.

“Even as our instinct is to tighten our belts, I think we have to seize the opportunity to wire America to the 21st century by assuring we are ground zero for research,” he said.

Kerry said the economic stimulus package’s $7.2 billion in broadband investments has to be seen as a downpayment on a national strategy to deliver broadband to “rural Americans who can’t access it and urban Americans who can’t afford it.”

Back in 1996, he was on the Commerce Committee working on a Telecommunications Act rewrite that concentrated on telephone lines, Kerry pointed out.

“Boy did we miss the curve on that one,” he said. “Just a short span of time later, much of the law, especially the part that dealt with long-distance service, was already obsolete.”

Was NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow disappointed at not hearing a detailed layout of Kerry’s telecommunications agenda?

“No, I was incredibly grateful,” McSlarrow said, tongue slightly in cheek. “I think it was great to have a very high-level speech and to actually focus on science and technology.”

So, the offer of a federal partnership didn’t smack of the desire of government to get too deeply into cable’s business?

“Oh, no, I am sure that is there too,” said McSlarrow. “But I actually don’t disagree with him about investment in science.”

Kerry had plenty of nice things to say about the cable industry, saying it’s “always nice to walk into a room and know you are among friends.”

He said cable should be “applauded and thanked and congratulated” for being the first to roll out high-speed, affordable Internet, including investing $145 billion to build a “state of the art, fiber-rich network.”

“Cable contributes $227 billion to the nation’s gross economic output. It supports 1.5 million workers and generates more than $60 billion annually in personal income,” he said.

Kerry tweaked broadcasters, saying he found the story of cable’s economic growth and impact even more amazing when he recalled how cable was treated earlier on. “I remember … the disdain that the broadcast guys had for all of you. I’ll never forget [then CBS chairman Larry] Tisch and those guys from New York would come down and rant and rave and, you know, they wouldn’t have anything to do with [cable],” he told the audience. “And within this amazingly short span of time, the tables reversed, and people who couldn’t get their phone calls returned were suddenly buying out and owning and changing the face of America. That’s how it works.”

Kerry did manage to work a stuffed moose into the speech, which could be a first for a communications subcommittee chairman.

Referring to a book by Temple University professor David Post, In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace, Kerry explained the origin of the title. Thomas Jefferson had a stuffed moose sent to him in Paris when he was minister to France so he could display it in the official residence as a symbol of “vast possibilities of the strange and largely unexplored New World.”

Kerry, like Post, saw the same symbol applying to cyberspace. “It is still mostly undiscovered territory, and we are a little bit like the early European settlers,” he said. “We need pathfinders and pioneers to settle this new world.”