Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Back to Business as Usual

A quote caught my attention on this first full day of the Obama Administration. It’s from a story on America’s economic stimulus package.

Our new president plans to set aside $6 billion to connect more Americans to the Internet. And his broadband plan is now on a fast track through Congress. (A House hearing is scheduled for today).

If done right, the plan could help close the digital divide, spread economic opportunity and ensure an open Internet for everyone.

But don’t tell that to the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington think tank that’s a part of Washington’s own economic stimulus racket. Robert Atkinson supports taxpayer money for broadband but prefers it be delivered with no strings attached.

Here’s what Atkinson had to say:
"We have got to focus on what this is all about. This is not about broadband reform -- this is about stimulus... Stimulus has to have one goal, and that is to get as much investment in as fast a time as possible.”
Get out your DC decoder rings folks. What Atkinson really means by this is change ain’t needed – not even at a time when America has slid to 22nd in the world in high-speed Internet adoption.We merely need to funnel taxpayer dollars to the same phone and cable companies that got us into this problem. They’ll pocket the change and continue to:
  1. exert their near complete control over America’s broadband market,
  2. stifle new innovation and market entrants, and
  3. charge users higher prices for slower speeds than what’s available to people in other developed nations.
When Atkinson says: “This is not about broadband reform” he really means it’s about business as usual.

And he’s telegraphing to companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast that he will stand with them to fight conditions like non-discrimination and open access that would guarantee that public money for broadband actually serves the public good.

Obama’s own tech platform sets a different tone:
"Deploy Next-Generation Broadband: Work towards true broadband in every community in America through a combination of reform of the Universal Service Fund, better use of the nation's wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives."
Nowhere does it say that taxpayers should prop up a powerful market duopoly that has served us poorly in the past.

Obama also lists Net Neutrality and “the full and free exchange of information through an open Internet” as his top technology priority as president.

Stimulus is critical. And the Internet has an important part to play in spreading economic opportunity. But simply enriching AT&T is not the answer. We need built-in guarantees that our public money will build a better, more open and affordable system.

What you’re witnessing in Atkinson’s comments is his own audition for an economic bailout. ITIF appears to be one in a long list of coin-operated think tanks that strike lucrative deals with industry. The game goes something like this: “You support my little group financially and we’ll churn out ‘analysis’ that you can cite as evidence while you lobby Congress for corporate handouts.”

Despite our new president this still seems to be the real business of Washington, and, sadly, Atkinson is playing his part.

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