A bill that seeks a universal broadband-access strategy within six months is drawing criticism from some who say that calling such high-speed service “the wave of the future” and giving it special treatment is premature.
The federal government would be charged with devising a national strategy for universal high-speed Internet access, under a bill introduced this week by a prominent senator. Boosting broadband would lead to “high-intensity growth” of the economy, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) told Congress at the bill’s introduction.
Lieberman first described his plan to tech workers at the Silicon Valley software company Wind River Systems Inc. last week. A Senate committee — probably the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee — will review it next.
“The time is ripe for this legislation, because a case needs to be made in Washington of why broadband is important, and what its potential is,” says Adam Kovacevich, a Lieberman spokesperson.
Broadband support in every home and business would lead to innovations like remote surgery and advancements in distance learning, as well as to a general boom in the economy, Lieberman says. His bill would force the government to resolve some of the roadblocks, ranging from problems with spam, privacy violations and child protection to regulatory conflicts. Kovacevich says Lieberman will introduce four follow-up bills in the next few months, detailing how the government should solve those problems.
Committing Too Soon?
Skeptics, however, are criticizing Lieberman’s sweeping support for a technology they believe is unpredictable. His proposals could hinder alternatives by leading the government to play favorites, and could even promote the wrong choice, they say.
“A little humility is called for,” writes James Gattuso of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Can anyone, especially the government, flatly say this or that technology definitely will be successful and in what way?”
Adds Adam Thierer of the libertarian Cato Institute: “Lieberman’s biggest assumption is that Americans are falling over themselves asking for broadband. We can see that it’s not quite as hotly demanded as people think.”
Consumers will become more interested in the Internet — and in broadband — if they find better content there, Lieberman says. Consequently, he proposes tax incentives and research efforts to develop online products that will make broadband more valuable and inviting.
Lieberman is not the only member of Congress to put a priority on broadband this session; a number of bills address ways to promote or ease implementation of high-speed Internet access, although there’s no clear consensus about how to approach the issue.
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, agrees with the senator’s focus on the demand side of the broadband equation.
“People spend dollars for things they find valuable … whether it’s US$150 on a pair of sneakers or $5000 for a new TV,” Miller says. “Most people simply do not see the compelling value of broadband yet, so it’s important to create more compelling content.” Lieberman’s plan isn’t for government subsidy, but for incentives, Miller adds.
Heritage Foundation’s Gattuso assails the tax-credit approach. It is not the government’s job to supply market incentives for technology development, Gattuso says.
“It’s not entirely clear that we need a ‘killer app,’ as Lieberman describes,” Gattuso says. “What I think is clear is that there’s so much more the government could be doing on the supply side of things.” Government subsidies may hinder future technological development by favoring one technology, Gattuso adds.
A technology better than the current forms of broadband could surface and take over the market, Thierer says. An alternative may already be in the early stages, so Lieberman’s initiative would spend needless dollars, he says.
“We don’t know what we should be subsidizing right now,” Thierer says. “Broadband is a moving target … who knows what the proper level of broadband availability [and] access is?”