FCC Wrestles Private Interests for the Public Good
By Tony Bradley, PCWorldMar 21, 2010 7:04 am PDT
The FCC has been a focus of intense scrutiny for a year now–pursuing bold initiatives and laying out grand plans for the future of communications in America. The challenge for the FCC is that it is attempting to manage or control private sector interests in the name of the public good–no small feat in an economic and political environment that places such high value on corporate autonomy and the free market.
The problem faced by the FCC is that it is a government agency–with a limited budget and limited scope of authority–tasked with protecting a vital part of the national infrastructure. Certainly, there are advantages and benefits for small and medium businesses, as well as consumers, if the FCC is successful in pushing its agenda, but the FCC also must keep sight of the fact that the Internet and wireless broadband are also critical elements of America’s commerce and defense backbone.
The FCC hasn’t always been so visionary. My perception of the FCC prior to this past year was that it is the government agency in charge of enforcing silly policies based on Victorian morality for broadcast and cable TV networks. Allowing grotesque and graphic depictions of violence and death, while fining networks for the “f-bomb”, or the infamous (notorious?) Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction are contradictions in sensibility.
Granted, the FCC is still wasting its limited resources appealing the appeal of the appeal, and aggressively pursuing some ridiculous fine for Janet Jackson’s accidental Super Bowl XXXVIII half-time show indiscretion–which lasted less than a second six years ago, but at least it also has an agenda for things that actually matter as well.
I understand that the Utopian view of the way free market capitalism should work is a sort of Darwinist “only-the-strong-survive” approach based on the market exerting its will. The various Internet and broadband providers should strive to push the envelope and expand the scope and speed of services as a matter of competition–innovating in order to sway the market without the need for government intervention.
That approach works…to an extent. However, there are many markets with little or no competition so the drive to innovate is absent. In fact, there are many markets that are too small for the various Internet and broadband providers to fight for–leaving portions of America, and the businesses and government interests that exist there, without access to these services at all.
Another problem with leaving the critical infrastructure to the whims of the free market economy is that the players value profit over expansion or innovation. Free market pressure may, in fact, provide incentive for a broadband provider to invest in its network to surpass a competitor, but it will only play to the level of the competition rather than pushing the envelope or considering the broader impact the services–or lack thereof–have on the country as a whole.
While Internet access and broadband wireless may have begun as a privilege or luxury, the services are now seen as a right by many, and are definitely a critical element of the national infrastructure backbone. As such–even though the businesses that deliver them are private-sector interests–the services have to be monitored and managed by the government at some level just like the power grid, oil, shipping, drinking water, and other industries that are vital to the public good and national defense.
It is understandable that Internet and broadband business interests want as little government control or oversight as possible. What industry wouldn’t love to operate free of oversight or controls? The collapse of the financial industry as a result of letting the fox govern the henhouse, though, makes it seem more than reasonable not to trust the critical infrastructure of the nation to the altruism of the free market.
However, the Internet and broadband interests should not feel so threatened. The FCC isn’t going to start building wireless communications towers, or laying cable to communities. It has a bold vision, but that vision has to involve a cooperative partnership with the existing Internet and wireless providers. If the FCC is successful in getting Congress to approve the budget it needs to implement the National Broadband Plan, those providers will be the primary benefactors of those tax dollars.
It is a daunting task for the FCC to foster an alliance with private-sector interests that object to government involvement in order to expand and protect broadband access for the public good.