Likening it to President Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) last week said a comprehensive strategy for deployment of high-speed broadband should be "a national mission."
Arguing that the mission had yet to get off the ground due to the piecemeal approach and failure to act quickly of "numerous government agencies," the senator said he will introduce legislation this week to push the Bush administration for a "comprehensive" broadband-deployment policy within six months.
An administration official responded that Lieberman's proposal held nothing new, that the administration is already encouraging broadband on numerous fronts, but that it is up to the "best and brightest" minds at the FCC to puzzle out the key issue of DSL open access, put in doubt by a recent court ruling.
Although looking for more government inspiration, Lieberman said the perspiration should come from the private sector. "The public sector cannot and should not manage this effort. Our future will fortunately be in the hands of thousands of individual innovators like so many of you here today," he told an Alameda, Calif., crowd.
Lieberman, expected to be a presidential candidate in 2004, was borrowing a page from his former running mate: Bridging the digital divide was one of Vice President Al Gore's major talking points. It also could be a major fundraising point. Lieberman's marketplace emphasis was no surprise given the makeup of the crowd.
The senator unveiled his proposal in California before members of tech lobby TechNet, comprising top executives from some 300 companies. It was akin to preaching to the choir since the broadband-status report with his announcement made some of the same points as a report offered in January by TechNet (a copy of which could be found last week at technet.org).
It was unclear whether Lieberman's bill would gain much Hill support, but it clearly could make him well-heeled friends in high-tech places.
Saying decisions are "piling up" on broadband deployment—such as on "spectrum, competition, rights management, spam, privacy and child protection"—Lieberman urged the Bush administration to develop a "coherent, cross-agency broadband strategy."
He also plans legislation that will (1) require the FCC to develop a plan for regulating the Internet; (2) create tax incentives for deploying broadband to underserved areas, both rural and urban; and (3) promote infrastructure R&D.
Lieberman's report concedes that cable is under no government obligation to upgrade its systems or make its high-speed lines available to competing Internet service providers. "Unlike common carriers, they have asserted First Amendment rights with regard to the content they carry," the report says, "and the courts continue to uphold that status."
While the broadband-rollout issue may seem more a legacy from Gore, the Internet-regulation aspect, particularly access by children to adult content, is a Lieberman staple. "The federal government has not been effective at designing solutions to restricting children's access to sexually oriented content," said the report accompanying his announcement.
Responding to Lieberman's proposal, Bruce Mehlman, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy, said: "A preliminary review suggests no new facts, ideas or proposals. But the newfound interest of such a high-profile senator should clearly advance this important issue."
On what the administration is already doing, he said, "As the senator dives more deeply into the issue, he is going to recognize significant administration efforts." Among examples he cited: the three-year acceleration on depreciation schedules for capital equipment; a push for a permanent R&D tax credit; extending the Internet-tax moratorium; and support for $80 million in loan guarantees for rural broadband rollout.
"Don't forget," Mehlman added, "we made Michael Powell chairman of the FCC and put Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy on the commission because they are the best and brightest telecom minds and they need, at the FCC, to resolve the most challenging piece of the puzzle, as the appeals court just reiterated." He was referring to the D.C. Circuit Court decision late last month vacating and remanding FCC rules requiring telephone companies to open their high-speed Internet DSL lines to competitors. The FCC was already reviewing those rules as part of its triennial review.