Group calls for broadband policy debate cease-fire

People concerned about broadband adoption and policy in the U.S. need to back off from a largely partisan and bitter debate and instead focus on the country’s needs, a tech-focused think tank said.

“Just because you work for a large telecom company doesn’t mean you’re evil and just because you believe in municipal wireless networks doesn’t mean you’re a communist,” said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Information Foundation (ITIF).

Debate over issues such as net neutrality and U.S. rankings on broadband adoption and rollout has gotten “over the top,” with some people “playing fast and loose” with the facts, Atkinson said at an ITIF forum Tuesday. Broadband and some other tech issues have frequently broken down into arguments between the political left and right, he said, and he called on both sides to cool the rhetoric.

A couple of panelists on both sides of the issues Atkinson identified in an ITIF paper basically told him they weren’t interested in what he’s selling.

The debates over net neutrality and U.S. government broadband rollout are important ones, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project. The people leading the debates don’t fit into convenient “right” and “left” labels, but instead, the debate is more about the role of government, he said. On the other side from Feld are people who believe government involvement is “intrinsically a bad thing,” he said.

“We’re in a genuine ideological debate, which is a good thing to have,” Feld said. “Robust debate is not a bad thing.”

Meanwhile, Scott Cleland, founder and president of Precursor, a telecom consulting firm, filed his own white paper refuting Atkinson’s points after he was asked to speak at the forum.

While Atkinson called on the “right” to stop denying the U.S. was falling behind the rest of the industrialized world in broadband roll-out and adoption, Cleland did just that. Cleland rejected the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) studies showing the U.S. is 15th in the world in per capita broadband adoption, saying the OECD numbers are biased toward countries with expensive government broadband programs and biased against free-market economies.

Competition among broadband providers in the U.S. has never been greater, said Cleland, chairman of the anti-net neutrality group, People arguing for greater government involvement in broadband rollout ignore the fact that wireless broadband service is available in many places and more wireless broadband is on the way, he said.

Cleland also accused Silicon Valley tech companies of secretly pushing for others to pay for high-speed broadband networks. “What a deal — get consumers, broadband carriers and taxpayers to build you this 100 megabit network so that they can make profits on it,” he said. “Let’s transfer billions and billions of dollars in wealth to the Silicon Valley billionaires so that they can have a playground for free.”

These “bandwidth whales” ignore the costs of building high-speed broadband networks, but cost has to be part of the debate, Cleland said.

Feld and Atkinson both rejected Cleland’s assertion that Silicon Valley companies were quietly pushing for other people to pay for new broadband networks. While the tech industry would benefit from faster broadband and more broadband users, U.S. society as a whole would benefit more from applications such as telemedicine and distance education, Atkinson said.

While Feld and Cleland disagreed on the role of government in the broadband industry, Ken Peres, research economist with the Communication Workers of America, called on everyone involved in the debate to focus on the goals of universally available, higher-speed broadband. Peres suggested that there’s a large role for private companies and a role for government in improving broadband availability and speed in the U.S.

“To me it’s kind of clear,” Peres said. “Let’s get to work on this.”

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