F the FCC: The internet as interstate

At PDF, I ask Vint Cerf — who said the FCC should die — to zero-base what government should or must do: regulation, incentive, investment. He launches onto a nice riff on roads and whether we should consider the internet to be a road — on which we chose what vehicles to drive — and so it becomes a government utility. Andrew Rasiej (playing Oprah in the audience) says that in the 1800s, people were dying from bad water in New York and so the city government spent billions buying a government-run aquaduct system and New York became the industrial and financial capital of the world. In the analogy, water trucks bear the logos of Time Warner, Comcast, and Verizon and they stop the pipes from being laid. Andrew wonders what would happen if internet access were declared a civil right.

  • Jeff,

    The proper role going forward should be spectrum management. Provided the future is increasingly about wireless, witness Asia, and local (defined as where one happens to be in the moment), spectrum becomes the practical priority. The big issue before the next congress will likely be revisiting the Universal Service Fund (USF), this will prompt significant and important discussion involving all the players including the FCC. The fundamental problem with the FCC is one of charter, being a complaint driven agency they become involved in the political distractions of the commons (e.g., Janet Jackson) rather than the more productive work attendant to the long view. The strategic issues of national communications infrastructure are ignored for the simple reason that voters don’t complain about that arcane stuff and absent any serious vox populi law makers busy themselves with the more newsworthy, popular issues, it makes better copy. The FCC is past its best used by date and deserves radical reinvention.

  • If propaganda could have been delivered via water pipes it never would have become a public utility.

    The internet is not a “road” it is the backbone of democracy (or dictatorship). How do you prevent it from becoming a tool of government if public, or a tool of government via intimidation if private?

    Notice how the FCC has become politicized as has CPB. Even the BBC, which gets it funding from a dedicated tax, has run into issues of political bias.

    Creating an impermeable barrier between carrier and content seems to be a issue that has yet to be resolved.

  • lancaster

    Abolish the FCC, of course.

    Most Americans assume government ownership of communications frequencies is somehow a fundamental
    principle of human society… rather than its true history as seedy special interest politics.

    American radio frequency airwaves were originally open & free to everyone, mostly used for wireless telegraphy. But the U.S. Navy sought control of those ‘waves’ — The Radio Act of 1912 blatantly seized half the useable spectrum for the government/military. Private stations could use the rest only with a Federal license from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Radio voice broadcasts began in 1920 with 576 licensed stations.

    By 1922, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover started colluding with major broadcasters. At the first meeting, L.R. Krumm of Westinghouse complained that it was “perfectly possible to establish a so-called broadcasting station for about $500 or $1000 initial investment — ” The programming from these upstarts consisted of nothing but phonograph records, and that sort of station can interfere very disastrously with such a station as we are trying to operate.” Krumm added, “I believe 12 good stations, certainly a maximum of 15, would supply most of the needs of the country.”

    Hoover then began to sharply restrict new licenses, claiming the need to prevent interference among broadcasters. He also assumed authority to dictate radio broadcast times, frequencies and geographic locations. In 1925 he and the major broadcasters advocated a “public interest” standard for licensing –and then stopped issuing any licenses at all, claiming the frequency spectrum was full. Legal battles ensued.

    But special interests triumphed with the ‘Radio Act of 1927’ establishing the Federal Radio Commission bureaucracy (…later became FCC). The airwaves were declared public property under Commission control… which issued ‘temporary’ licenses only to those willing to broadcast “in the public interest” — exactly as the dominant major radio broadcasters had wanted.

    “One of our troubles in getting legislation {…to nationalize the airwaves} was the very success of the voluntary {private} system…. Members of the Congressional committees kept saying, ‘it is working well, so why bother?'” (– Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, 1952)


  • Francis Burdett

    well to muddle the above metaphors…

    Although “water” is a utility and often a government operated utility in much of the country, is even access to water a civil right in the United States?

    Water usage gets “cut-off’ to businesses and individuals all the time.

    Now to undercut my own statement, water is a limited resource and must be rationed, whereas “bits” are limitless and the cost of providing bits could be approaching zero.

  • Distribution channels are almost always the proper subject of government established monopoly and regulation. That which is distributed via those channels should, on the other hand, almost always be determined soley by market forces (with limited exceptions such as safety regulations.)

    We should have “public” Roads; waterways; power, telephony, and cable networks; airways; airwaves; water pipes, etc.

    In general, those who maintain a distribution channel should never be permitted to be “users” of that channel or providers of content in the channel. Thus, those who maintain the cable networks should never be permitted to provide programming, those who offer internet service should not be permitted to provide content or application services. Those who maintain railroad tracks should not be permitted to run rail cars or engines. etc. Funding for distribution channels should either be by tax in very special circumstances (i.e. for roads, water distribution, etc.) or by auction to the highest bidder (i.e. driven by market forces). Usage rights over a public channel should never be provided in perpetuity — terms of use should always be limited and thus subject to new auctions.

    Whenever you see a channel maintained by a user or content provider, what you are seeing is one of two things: 1) Special interests that are “stealing” from the common wealth or 2) The result of government incompetence to maintain the channel.

    Distribution channels should be monopolized and regulated, distributed content (physical or non-physical) should be subject to the open market.

    The internet is an essential public distribution channel. It should not be subject to the whims of private concerns. If we don’t have a government that can maintain it for us, then we should get a new government.

    bob wyman