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What FCC Chair Is Reading: Gives Glimpse of Thinking on Broadband, Net Neutrality

To understand how FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski thinks about his job, go back in history and understand the postal system. That's what I picked up from a book Genachowski offered to me last week as recommended reading.

Because by understanding the postal system, one sees that critical decisions in government drove the creation of that first communications network and every new form of media and communications system thereafter.

That's among my many takeaways from Paul Starr's "The Creation of The Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications," also apparently piled on the nightstands of some senior staff at the FCC, who also have recommended the book to me.

Genachowski mentioned the book when I caught him after a speech on Friday on the Knight Commission's report about community journalism in the digital age. One of the report's recommendations was to bring broadband access to all U.S. homes so people can access local news online. That got us talking about his pitch for high-speed Internet access.

While Genachowski didn't go into detail about specific parts of the 400-plus-page book, the sweeping historical account of the communications industry serves as a reference for the nation's top communications regulator. And it can provide some clues to his thinking as he sets out on a goal to make universally accessible the biggest and most disruptive form of communications since television: the Web.

Starr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and co-founder of the liberal-leaning American Prospect magazine, goes through all the major forms of communications since the postal service -- telegraph, telephone, radio and television -- until the 1940s. He explains how each new medium had government leaders, lobbyists and/or FCC regulators influencing or making choices that drove the direction of those transformations in media.

"The communications media have so direct a bearing on the exercise of power that their development is impossible to understand without taking politics fully into account, not simply in the use of the media, but in the making of constitutive choices about them," Starr, a professor of sociology at Princeton, wrote in the introduction.

That takes us back to the postal system, when the nation's leaders decided to create an affordable nationwide delivery network for mail that could distribute free information and opinion in newspapers. It would be expensive to deploy and geographically challenging. But they did so for "nation-building," to unite far-flung populations so residents could participate in social discourse and government leaders could spread their points of view.

The example of the postal system draws comparisons with the push by President Obama for universal broadband access. He has described high-speed Internet as the country's next great infrastructure challenge, like roads and railways, that will serve as the foundation for social, economic, education and health goals. By bringing broadband to the hinterlands, which makes no economic sense for the companies bringing it out there, people in those underserved communities will be able to keep up with others who getting online businesses off the ground, learning online and drawing healthcare information from the Web, he believes.

At the FCC, which is supposed to come up with a plan to make that happen, the halls are full of industry lobbyists explaining the financial and geographic difficulty of bringing broadband to remote places. They say that doing so wouldn't bring shareholders the returns on their investments to build or maintain, and there is no guarantee people in those areas would adopt the technology. Public interest lobbyists, meanwhile, say the service should be a basic utility for all U.S. households, and the agency may have to make hard choices that would invite attacks from Congress or telecom and cable companies to accomplish their goals.

Starr stops around the 1940s with no mention of current debates over competition in the wireless industry and net neutrality. But the debates over exclusive handset deals and the blocking of competing content and technologies on wireless networks also echo the past. In the book, Starr explores the monopoly power of Western Union over the telegraph system and Associated Press over news. Western Union refused to carry news from any competitors to Associated Press, which gave readers a limited body of information from which to choose.

In a 1884 Senate hearing, the leader of AP's rival United Press said: "I cannot see any way there is a future for an opposition press association unless there is an opposition telegraph company," according to the book.

The government's response to monopolies, such as in telegraph and telephone services, was to prevent those monopolies from extending their dominance into the next new communications system, Starr explains.

In an April 2009 article in American Prospect, Starr weighed in on the nation's transition to broadband networks as the new media and communications infrastructure:

"If history is any guide, the best way to get universal service is to support new entrants with no interest in the status quo."

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 5, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
 | Tags: julius genachowski,net neutrality,paul starr  
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I was the world's first wireless ISP (WISP) -- I started 17 years ago -- and bring high speed Internet to those supposedly unreachable "hinterlands." WISPs use unlicensed radio spectrum and specially adapted mass market hardware to reach areas at the lowest cost per square mile of any terrestrial broadband technology: less than $100 per square mile covered. No one can beat our efficiency or economy. What we do is not very profitable; it's a labor of love. But it's economically sustainable -- so long as government does not interfere in ways that would make it otherwise. Unfortunately, FCC Chairman Genachowski's proposal to regulate ISPs -- specifically, via rules that would prevent them from rationing expensive Internet bandwidth -- would destroy many if not most small, rural ISPs. Does he have in mind throwing away all of these good people's work, forcing them out of business, and replacing them with a government-controlled system, like the Postal Service, when private businesspeople like myself can do (and have been doing) the job?


Posted by: squirma | October 5, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

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