Some good ideas in the FCC's National Broadband Plan

by on December 17, 2009 · 2 comments

Good ideas, supported by evidence, eventually matter.

That’s the conclusion I reached after reviewing the outline the FCC’s broadband task force presented to the commission yesterday. Here are some ideas perceptive scholars have been discussing for a long time that are apparently going to be part of the National Broadband Plan:

  • “Private sector investment is essential; new funding is limited.” So I guess the Interstate Highway System won’t be the funding model for universal broadband. Whew!
  • “Policy changes require the consideration of unintended consequences.”
  • “Competition drives innovation and better choices for consumers.”
  • Wireless broadband needs a big new chunk of spectrum, and policymakers need to consider reallocating broadcast TV spectrum and spectrum reserved for use by the federal government.
  • “Market forces should be applied to all [spectrum] bands, though other policy objectives should play a role in allocation decisions.”
  • Fundamental reform of the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes phone service very inefficiently, should actually be done, not just talked about.
  • Universal service reform should include reform of “intercarrier compensation,” the charges phone companies pay each other when they hand off traffic.
  • “USF policies should be designed to achieve measurable outcomes with transparency, oversight, and accountability.”

Most of these ideas were considered wacky, ideological, politically unrealistic, or just not relevant a few decades (or even a few years) ago.  Now they are the mainstream.

That doesn’t mean everything is wonderful with the National Broadband Plan. The FCC is supposed to plan how broadband will be used to promote consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety, education, health care, energy independence, community development, worker training, and a host of other legislative goals. In many cases there may be a fundamental tension between consumer welfare — a term of art in economics that means resources are allocated so that consumers get the selection of goods and services they are most willing to pay for, with the quality attributes they most prefer, at the best possible prices — and the other goals, which often involve planners deciding what consumers should want. Similarly, FCC Chairman Genachowski’s comments illustrate some decisionmakers’ disturbing tendency to conflate access (the service is available to those who want it) with adoption (everybody actually chooses to use it). Technophiles sometimes have an annoying habit of assuming that those of us who fail to adopt the latest info tech gadget or service must be ignorant rubes who don’t understand the glories of being hooked up to a fat information pipe 24/7 — rather than careful shoppers who have better things to do with our time than read Yahoo OMG! while driving. For this reason I fully expect to be annoyed by the National Broadband Plan, as well as gratified to see that some good ideas have finally made it from the Ivory Tower to real-world policy application.

But there’s enough good stuff in there to stick with “gratified” for at least one day.

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