Katrina vanden Heuvel: Susan Crawford for FCC chairman

February 5, 2013

In the 1940s, the humble dial tone made its debut. For telephone users accustomed to a stony silence that left them unsure if their calls were going through, this was a welcome change. It also rang in a new era of access, where the U.S. government committed to bring every American a basic connection to the phone network, and required the phone system to operate under common-carriage rules, which required it to treat all calls and callers equally.

Today, access to high-speed Internet service is the dial tone of the last century — and, for many of us, it’s a non-issue. It’s in our offices, our coffee shops and, regrettably for parents of teenagers, on our cell phones.

But, as freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) might say, the system is rigged. Fully one-third of Americans can’t afford high-speed Internet. The rest are overpaying for substandard service in a so-called market that has been carved up by cable and telecom monopolists.

This has led to an increasing digital divide. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, the one in five adults who still does not use the Internet is more likely to be older, less educated, and low-income, and less likely to speak English as a native language.

Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have bought their way in Washington and stymied regulators in the courts, successfully weakening nearly all protections for consumers and the public interest. This doesn’t just threaten American pocketbooks. It threatens American democracy. Media giants use their market power to dominate telecommunications start-ups, stifling entrepreneurship. They’re waging war on the concept of “net neutrality,” which would prevent broadband providers from blocking sites or competing applications so that consumers have equal access to all information.

Worst of all, these corporate conglomerates are increasingly using their market power to dominate content businesses. A handful of media giants are controlling not only how we access information but also what information we have access to.

Enter Susan Crawford, a leading telecommunications policy expert and longtime champion of net neutrality. She promotes a reasonably priced, globally competitive, ubiquitous communications infrastructure that enables American competition and innovation. Above all, she is committed to making high-speed Internet access a universal, affordable resource.

In her new book, “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” Crawford relays how, 10 years ago, the United States led the Internet revolution, with the fastest speeds and bargain prices. Today that global competitive advantage has all but vanished. The government’s refusal to adequately regulate telecommunications has resulted in restrictive monopolies that have allowed countries such as Japan and South Korea to surpass us in broadband speed and price.

This steady slide backward not only deprives consumers of services vital to a competitive employment and business market, it also threatens the economic future of the nation. Meanwhile, despite huge technological progress, nobody is building the advanced networks that are now possible.

Where has the Federal Communications Commission been in all of this? Conspicuously absent. The current chairman, Julius Genachowski, has generally continued the corporate-friendly practices of his predecessors.

There are rare exceptions within the ranks of the FCC. Former chairman Michael Copps, for example, was a commissioner when he opposed the 2011 Comcast-NBC Universal mega-merger, which created the biggest monopoly since the breakup of Standard Oil a century ago. The new entity, he lamented, could be “a stake in the heart of independent content production.”

While there’s been no official word yet, Genachowski is widely expected to step down soon. And although it’s promising that he just proposed public super WiFi networks, we still need more robust competition to tackle telecom’s monopolistic power. Consumers need access to both wireless and high-speed broadband — for which Crawford has been such an advocate.

So here’s a modest proposal: Make Susan Crawford the next FCC chair.

She is ideally qualified. In addition to her deep knowledge and expertise in this issue, she understands the landscape, players, and technology well, without being entrenched in the culture of big business. She knows that democratic freedom of information is at stake — and she knows that the FCC has the power to fix it.

She offers a new vision for the future of broadband. Crawford would preempt the unfair and uncompetitive state laws that infringe on the rights of local communities to expand broadband access. To support local efforts to build out fiber-optic networks, she proposes creating an infrastructure bank that would provide long-term, low-interest financing. And to ensure that every American has access to high-quality Internet, she advocates subsidies to increase competitive offerings.

Given telecom’s powerful lobby, this is not a task for the faint of heart — but Crawford has the requisite political chops. After serving as President Obama’s special assistant for science, technology, and innovation policy, she’s learned a thing or two about the political workings of Washington. Crawford’s pro-competition agenda — which charts the course for a new era of radio, wireless, and spectrum possibilities — should speak to Democrats and Republicans.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

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