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After Genachowski... Whom?

The next chairman of the FCC must pick up from where former FCC Chairman William Kennard left off, articulating a new, progressive vision of what the broadband world will look like and how to get there.
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Using one important measure of success, outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's tenure was successful. As the AP story announcing his departure noted, the chairman "hewed a middle line between the desires of public-interest groups and the telecom industry, which hasn't enamored him to either side."

But the level of displeasure isn't symmetric. While industry groups applauded his commitment to promoting broadband adoption, critics such as Public Knowledge lamented his "lost opportunities," while the Free Press talked about rising consolidation and prices under his regime.

Say what? Under his regime, consumers continued to get faster connections at constant dollar prices, while wireless burgeoned and now challenges wireline in many applications and in many households. And provider companies continue to invest tens of billions annually on both the wired and wireless sides. Perhaps the best evidence of how wrong the critics are is the amazing suite of new technologies -- signals, devices, applications, services -- that allow them to broadcast their complaint.

This criticism is based on a myth -- that broadband providers in the U.S. aren't competing, despite their persistent track record of innovation and investment. It's based on little more than the equivalent of a comparison between the suburban U.S. and an apartment block in Seoul. But the critics' willingness to perpetuate the myth should inform the Administration as it considers Genachowski's replacement.

The neutrality advocates miss the boat completely. Their plan is to appropriate private investment through "common carriage" rules that would force the companies that invested in broadband delivery to share their investments with free-loading competitors at regulated prices, the digital equivalent of The Little Red Hen. And by trying to block the providers from posting prices for different levels of service to websites and content -- just as they offer different levels of service and price to households -- they block innovation and make consumers pay more than they should.

But for many progressive Democrats, the neutrality critics fill a void -- they provide an alternative to laissez-faire indifference. However competitive the broadband world may be, a "hands off" approach won't re-engineer the health care delivery system using high-speed connectivity, nor bring new technology to our schools, nor protect personal privacy, nor provide poor kids with the computing devices they need to use broadband as part of their education. It won't change the plight of a low-income mom who parks near a McDonald's at night so her kids can do their homework over purloined Wi-Fi.

That is the real progressive agenda. It entails extending the high-speed Internet to every place in the country, through an efficient mix of wired and wireless technologies guided by consumers and markets. It means addressing the obstacles repeatedly shown to inhibit broadband adoption -- not price or availability so much as indifference, irrelevance, and concerns over privacy. It means streamlining the regulatory and policy path to improving the performance of such "social" sectors of the economy as the school system, the health care system, and local government. It means summoning the will and resources to complement, rather than deny, what private providers have already done and will do to make broadband the economic and social catalyst that it is.

In short, progressives need the next chairman of the FCC to lead them towards a "third way," a middle path between reckless regulatory intervention and callous laissez-faire.

That's not an impossible task by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it was a road first taken by former FCC Chairman William Kennard in the Clinton administration.

In a revolutionary vision statement made in 1999, Kennard spoke of "a competitive environment in which communications markets look and function like other competitive industries." He sought to lead the FCC away from micro-regulation of the industry as if it were the franchised Ma Bell monopoly of generations ago and towards a new set of goals: "universal service, consumer protection and information; enforcement and promotion of competitive markets domestically and worldwide; and spectrum management."

Kennard had the vision -- and the audacity -- to talk about a world that has come to pass, one in which:

"Traditional wireline telephone service providers, cable operators, wireless firms, and satellite companies have made massive investments in the new networks that will allow, for example, cable operators to offer phone service, telephone companies to offer high-speed Internet and possibly video service, and wireless companies to offer phone service reliable and inexpensive enough to compete for basic local voice telephony."

Perhaps the best indication of how far the industry has taken us is that Kennard's vision now seems almost mundane. The next chairman of the FCC must pick up from where Kennard left off, articulating a new, progressive vision of what the broadband world will look like and how to get there. She or he must define this new "third way" for progressives. That is the most important job facing Chairman Genachowski's replacement.

The Administration has spent too much time trying, Solomon-like, to split the baby between the industry and its critics. Instead, it needs a midwife -- to let the new broadband world be born.