by Matt Stoller, Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 11:17:57 AM EDT
I had an interesting meeting on the Hill yesterday. When I started blogging, I felt like I was just kind of pushing against a large blob, but as I've lived in DC over the last year and a half I've sort of stumbled into a network of smart and experienced people who tell me things. It turns out we have a lot of allies in Congress who want to do the right thing, but don't believe it's possible because they are always being visited by telecom lobbyists and never by the 'people'. Bridging the divide between these progressive experts and activists is something we really need to work on.
Anyway, here's what I learned. There is a low-cost open and neutral wireless broadband network available to all Americans starting in February of 2009. All the FCC needs to do is make it available. In a month or so, FCC Chair Kevin Martin is going to set rules for an auction of extremely valuable public spectrum. This spectrum is available because broadcasters are switching over to digital TV, leaving some spectrum unoccupied. According to the Congressional Research Service, "The 700 MHz spectrum that is to be relinquished bybroadcasters is widely considered to be especially desirable for advanced wireless services."
That means that the oligopolistic behavior by cell phone and broadband companies, which can be traced to a lack of competition, can be challenged. An entirely new entrant, like Google, Yahoo, Apple, or Echostar, could come in and build a real national broadband and wireless network. Currently, the situation is bleak. We are way behind the rest of the world in both the phones that are available and the quality of cell phone service. I mean, Verizon advertises itself with 'Can you hear me now', various wireless carriers brag that they have fewer dropped calls, and Apple's iphone is only available to AT&T customers.
Telecom expert Tim Wu found the wireless carriers:
aggressively [control] product design and innovation in the equipment and application markets, to the detriment of consumers. Their policies, in the wired world, would be considered outrageous, in some cases illegal, and in some cases simply misguided.
This spectrum offers a way around all of this. If the FCC sets rules that the spectrum must be auctioned off to a national player that will ensure openness in the network, then the telecom infrastructure of this country looks completely different.
Now, of course, the politics aren't that simple, because of companies like Verizon that deliver poor customer and quality of service and spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to steal from the public. And Kevin Martin constantly tries to help large companies like Verizon. But Telecom subcommittee chair Ed Markey and Energy and Commerce Chair John Dingell can make a lot of noise and make Martin's life very unpleasant, and if there is a public outcry there is leverage to make the rules work for the public (for a change). In addition, FCC Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein can be fierce populists and extremely effective.
Ultimately, the public airwaves belong to the public, and we're going to fight and win on that principle. This is the next stage of the net neutrality fight, and in 2008, we need to ask questions of our nominees on what kind of FCC they are going to appoint. Right now, telecoms are trying to steal our public airwaves, but we should remember that the public airwaves belong to the public.