The U.S. government may be poised to reverse course on its market-only approach to rolling out broadband and a smart electricity grid to all corners of the country, advocates said Thursday.
With a Democratic Congress and a Democratic and tech-savvy president in Barack Obama, the upcoming months will be the time to push for government involvement in building network infrastructure, said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a communications policy advocacy group.
In recent years, some conservatives and broadband providers have called on the government to stay out of broadband rollout, saying such "industrial-policy" intervention could lead to a heavily regulated industry, with little competition and high prices. "I'm about to use some words that have been profane in this town for the last eight years," Scott said at a Google-sponsored forum on broadband and electricity policy. "We need an industrial policy."
The U.S. broadband market isn't competitive now, with most people having only one or two providers, Scott said. The U.S. pays more per megabit of service than most other industrialized nations, and it's 15th among industrialized nations in broadband adoption, speakers said.
If policy makers agree that universal broadband and a higher broadband adoption rate are crucial for the U.S. economy, "then we're going to have to take some really aggressive measures to get there," Scott said.
Thursday's event was the first of three Google-sponsored discussions in Washington, D.C., concerning policy recommendations the company has for the next Congress and the Obama administration. In a speech Tuesday, Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt laid out many of Google's policy goals, including a national broadband policy, energy independence, and a more open and accessible government.
In addition to addressing broadband, Thursday's panel talked about a need for a "smart" electricity grid, which would allow customers to monitor their electricity use in real time and allow them to work with electricity utilities to reduce use during peak demand. Both universal broadband and a smart electricity grid will take major investments and require leadership and strong public support, said Michael Oldak, senior director of state competitive and regulatory policies for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing electric companies.
Oldak compared the challenges facing the outdated electrical grid to the challenge of sending astronauts to the moon in the 1960s. "We need that same kind of drive to get more kids into science and engineering," he said.
Asked if the public would support higher prices for an improved electrical grid, Oldak said that's the wrong question to ask. In pilot programs using "smart" thermostats, customers have saved 10 percent to 15 percent on their electric bills by allowing electric companies to control electricity use during peak hours. For instance, an electric company could adjust the temperatures of air conditioners or heaters via the thermostats to reduce electricity consumption. Without smart grids, the U.S. will continue to waste energy and the energy industry will have to build dozens of new power plants to keep up with demand, he said.
"You can't look at this as adding $5 to people's bills," he said. "You've got to look at what the situation will look like with or without smart grids."
Since Schmidt's speech, there have been some detractors to Google's policy vision. While privacy groups have raised concerns about the practices of Google and other online companies, Google's policy goals don't mention privacy, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and a frequent Google critic.
"Failing to acknowledge privacy online is a glaring omission and undermines the company's credibility," Chester said. "Google should acknowledge that protecting online privacy must be a key task for the new administration and Congress. Google is so generous making suggestions, but fails to reflect how its own data collection house should be put in order."
Blogger Matt Sherman, of The Only Republican in San Francisco, questioned remarks by Obama transition official Susan Crawford, suggesting broadband should be treated like a public utility, one way the government could get involved in broadband rollout.
"Is there anyone in the technology world who sees public utilities as a model for innovation?" Sherman wrote. "A 1.5 megabit connection (T1) was an unimaginable luxury when I started in tech in the mid-90's. It was for well-funded companies only. Today, it is a low-end consumer connection and costs around 80% less. Has your sewage service followed a similar trajectory?"
But a national broadband policy would not have to mean excessive government subsidies, said Gigi Sohn, president of digital rights group Public Knowledge. It could mean tax breaks for companies that roll out broadband in underserved areas and a thorough review of wireless spectrum use, she said at Thursday's forum.
People who aren't connected to broadband will have more and more social and economic disadvantages, added Scott. "What are the consequences of not being connected to the 21st-century network?" he said.