Deregulation Hurts Broadband Development, Former Officials Say

Josh Smith

A loose regulatory system and lackluster enforcement are undermining efforts to give more Americans access to the latest communications technology, several former government officials said on Monday.

For too many years, broadband development has been left to businesses with little economic interest in building more networks, Michael Copps, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, said at the Freedom to Connect conference.

“That premise has always been a mystery to me because I never really quite got how business would go out and build broadband where there was no business case for it to do so,” Copps said.  “Why should we expect it to? That wasn’t how those roads and bridges and canals and railroads and highways usually got built.”

Like other physical infrastructure, broadband communications technology needs to be developed through significant public-private partnerships, but the current political and economic system is out of balance, said Copps, who retired from the FCC at the end of last year. “It’s been upended, first, by the undisciplined power of money in our politics and, secondly, by the inability of the public sector to exercise anything approaching adequate legislative or regulatory oversight,” he argued.

Copps cited “the power of unregulated marketology and the disinclination of government to do much about it.” He pointed to a controversial deal between Verizon and cable companies and said that consolidation and collaboration among media and telecom companies is a natural business trend that nevertheless must be countered by aggressive government action in the public interest.

Susan Crawford, former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology, and innovation policy, disagreed with businesses and many Republicans who have argued that the FCC and other regulatory agencies are undermining innovation and standing in the way of economic growth. “Where consolidation is possible, competition is impossible,” Crawford said at the conference, which was hosted by the New America Foundation, Google, and Mozilla, among others.

Crawford, now a visiting professor at Harvard University, said her views on regulation were “radicalized” by her experience as a government official. U.S. officials, prodded by industry, pursued policies of deregulation with little thought to how it would affect future generations, she asserted. Now, those policies could keep the United States lagging behind other countries.

“The next Google won’t come from America if we don’t have the sandbox to play in,” said Crawford, who also oversaw the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration at the FCC. The benefits of new technology can’t be realized without the proper policies, she said.

That’s an opinion echoed by many businesses and congressional Republicans who nevertheless have a very different view of what the proper policies should be. At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, for example, GOP lawmakers dismissed the need for more proactive FCC regulations. "This is one industry that we don't need to encourage,” Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said at the hearing. "I think there is a growing case for a lighter regulatory touch."

Crawford admitted that it is doubtful that Congress will take any firmer steps to prevent consolidation among communications companies, because few lawmakers see any advantage in picking a fight with major businesses. “There’s no appetite because there’s no upside,” she said.