My central lament in everything I have said so far about the Federal Communications Commission’s ambitious new National Broadband Plan is that, well, it’s just too ambitious! The agency has taken an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to the issue and the sheer scope of their imperial ambitions is breathtaking. I’ve likened it to an industrial policy for the Internet because the agency is essentially trying to centrally plan and engineer from above virtually every aspect of America’s broadband future despite its proclamation that, “Technologies, costs and consumer preferences are changing too quickly in this dynamic part of the economy to make accurate predictions.” But very little humility seems to be on display throughout the 376-page blueprint, which includes dissertations on everything from privacy to child safety issues to set-top box regulation.
And then there’s Chapter 15 on “civic engagement,” which calls for a wide variety of things to “strengthen the citizenry and its government,” and to “build a robust digital media ecosystem.” Although some of the ideas floated in the chapter are harmless enough–and some, like the call for more open and transparent government, would actually be beneficial–for the life of me I don’t understand why any of this needs to be in a plan about broadband deployment and diffusion. Particularly bizarre is the call here for Congress to create “a trust fund for digital public media,” which would fund the “production, distribution, and archiving of digital public media.” It would apparently be funded by “the revenues from a voluntary auction of spectrum licensed to public television.” (see pgs. 303-4)
Look, if the FCC wants Congress to create the equivalent of the PBS on Steroids, fine. Let’s have that debate. (In fact, I thought it was a debate that the FCC was already considering as part of its “Future of Media” effort). But why, again, is this in broadband plan? It’s a serious stretch to claim that this is somehow crucial to the task of getting more broadband out to the masses. Moreover, should our government really be in charge of “building a robust digital media ecosystem”? Here are a few reasons we might want to avoid having the government in the driver’s seat when it comes to charting the future course of America’s media sector.