ALEX COHEN, host:
Back now with Day to Day. Internet for everyone. That's the general idea put forth today by a coalition of advocacy groups and the tech industry. They are calling on Congress and President-elect Barack Obama to come up with a national broadband strategy, but as Joel Rose reports in this installment of our Memo to the President series, such proposals face opposition from both the cable and telecom industries.
JOEL ROSE: President-elect Barack Obama has not said who he'll appoint to lead the FCC next year or what the commission's priorities will be, but if the people advising the transition team are any indication, high-speed Internet access may be near the top of the list.
Professor SUSAN CRAWFORD (School of Law, University of Michigan): This really is a utility. This is like water, electricity, sewage systems, something that all - each American, all Americans need in order to succeed in the modern era.
ROSE: That's University of Michigan law professor Susan Crawford, one of two people charged with advising the Obama-Biden transition team on the FCC. Crawford declined to be interviewed for this story, but she did speak at a roundtable discussion earlier this year at the Tech Policy Summit in Los Angeles. Also on that panel was a White House science adviser, Ambassador Richard Russell.
Ambassador RICHARD RUSSELL (White House Science Adviser): The bottom line is that the U.S. is still, I think, the most dynamic broadband economy in the world.
ROSE: Susan Crawford called that, quote, "magical thinking."
Professor CRAWFORD: We're not doing at all well for reasons that mostly have to do with the fact that we failed to have a U.S. industrial policy pushing forward high-speed Internet access.
ROSE: That's exactly what many of the FCC's critics have been waiting to hear. Ben Scott is the policy director for the non-profit group Free Press.
Mr. BEN SCOTT (Policy Director, Free Press): We just simply don't have enough competition in our broadband markets.
ROSE: Scott says Americans are paying more for less, which is why the U.S. has fallen out of the top 10 countries in the world when it comes to the percentage of households using broadband. Right now, just over half of American homes have it, that puts us behind Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Sweden, Korea, Finland, Luxembourg, Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, and Germany...
Mr. SCOTT: If you look overseas, most of the world's leading nations have half a dozen or more different companies offering a similar broadband product. They're competing on price. They're competing on speed. They're competing on the attractiveness of the services that they offer on top of their broadband package.
ROSE: So, in London, for instance, there are at least nine Internet providers offering a range of services starting at the equivalent of $10 a month. They can do that, says Scott, because governments abroad have worked with industry to lay wires and equipment that are used by multiple providers.
Contrast that with the U.S., where phone and cable companies enjoy a duopoly in most markets. But there's plenty of competition in the U.S., according to Joe Waz. He's a spokesman for Comcast Corporation, the nation's largest cable company and its second largest internet provider.
Mr. JOE WAZ (Spokeperson, Comcast Corporation): Speeds have kept going up. Prices have stayed flat on a real dollar basis and have continued to decline in terms of the price per megabit delivered.
ROSE: Waz says his competitors at the phone companies are investing billions of dollars in faster fiber-optic networks. And in some places, cable companies are responding by opening up more of their channels to broadband. But not everywhere. About 10 percent of Americans still have no access to broadband at all. Many of those people live in rural areas. Wally Bowen, who runs a small Internet company in Asheville, North Carolina.
Mr. WALLY BOWEN (Founder, Mountain Area Information Network): Well, the cable companies don't find it cost effective. Phone companies have to reconfigure their landlines with additional technology, and there has been some of that, but it's been pretty limited.
ROSE: Bowen and others hope that new wireless technologies recently approved by the FCC will eventually solve the rural broadband problem. But even Comcast Corporation's Joe Waz says this is one issue that could benefit from government intervention.
Mr. WAZ: I think the smart use of government funds to the extent that we care to put them into broadband infrastructure would be to bring broadband where it isn't.
ROSE: Waz warns that cable and phone companies won't build new infrastructure where they don't expect to make money. Current FCC commissioner Robert McDowell agrees. He says the FCC has already taken steps to encourage more private investment in broadband infrastructure.
Mr. ROBERT MCDOWELL (Commissioner, FCC): I think we need to be wary of any policy that might scare away capital, especially given the state of the capital markets today. I don't think just 100-billion-dollar taxpayer-funded program to wire up America is the right way to go right now.
ROSE: But Free Press's Ben Scott isn't so sure. Scott say there is a precedent for this kind of major public-private partnership in American history.
Mr. SCOTT: I look at this as a real Eisenhower moment. You look back at the 1950s, and the government and the private sector got together, and they triggered investment in our highway systems. We need to have a similar 21st century highway bill where we invest in our broadband infrastructure.
ROSE: That information highway won't be easy to build. Scott says such a plan would require unprecedented leadership from the White House, Congress, and most of all, the FCC because it's likely to face vigorous opposition from cable and telecom companies. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.