Copps: SEATOA 10th Annual Conference Remarks
FCC COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS
SEATOA 10th ANNUAL CONFERENCE
MAY 10, 2011Good morning and thank you for that warm introduction. It's a pleasure to be
with you all this morning and to be in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. We aren't too
far from my old stomping grounds in Upstate South Carolina, a place that still feels like
home even after many decades in Washington. And I am lucky to have as a colleague at
the FCC someone you know well from her days as a state regulator, Mignon Clyburn-- a
stalwart advocate for consumers and a great ally for our colleagues in state and local
I've been privileged to serve at the Federal Communications Commission for ten
years as of this month. What a decade it's been in communications! In so many ways,
we are worlds beyond where we were in May of 2001 in terms of technology, mind-
boggling innovation and new services for consumers. For someone who can remember
traipsing around the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a kid and using an old crank phone
in the town's general store to call my parents back home, it's been quite a ride. But some
things remain the same--namely, the need for policies that will continue to spur
innovation, promote competition, and ensure that every American shares in the benefits
Getting broadband out to all our citizens is not just something that would be nice
for us to do. It is something essential for us to do if we want to provide individuals the
opportunity to live productive and fulfilling lives in the Twenty-first century and
something equally imperative if we want our country to have a competitive edge in this
challenging world. It has been my conviction since I arrived at the Commission that
broadband is critical to America's future. Broadband intersects with just about every
great challenge confronting our nation today--be it creating jobs, expanding equal
opportunity, providing quality education, overcoming our costly energy dependence,
ensuring health care for everyone, maintaining a nourishing environment, empowering
people with disabilities, restoring our global competitiveness, and making sure we have
the news and information that our country's democratic dialogue requires to sustain
itself. There is no solution for any of these challenges that does not have a broadband
component to it. Economic recovery and job creation depend upon all of us having the
information tools we need to develop ourselves, find opportunity, and help our nation
compete. So high-speed Internet access is not a luxury in today's world--it is an
I'm pleased to say that our present FCC has gotten on-track in understanding the
high stakes of the broadband game. We've come a long way. And we needed a reality
check because for most of the first eight years of my tenure, the previous Commissions
took American consumers on a dangerous deregulatory ride across just about the entire
gamut of the telecommunications and media landscape. Instead of looking to the public
interest as our guiding lodestar, the Commission spent far too much of its time enacting
policies designed to benefit big, incumbent interests rather than consumers and their local
communities. In the process we missed opportunities to develop essential private-public
sector partnerships and, very importantly, to work collaboratively with states and local
jurisdictions to craft policies to bring the wonders of telecommunications to all our
citizens. In the process, the Commission moved to remove broadband from the definition
of advanced services and almost completely divorced itself from any public policy input
into how this infrastructure would be built.
We have a long and successful history of infrastructure-building in this country.
Earlier generations met and mastered their own great infrastructure imperatives--things
that had to be built if the country was to continue its forward march. You can go all the
way back to our national beginnings and see it. You and I have talked about this before,
so I'll just briefly mention it here. Those earlier generations built roads and bridges,
turnpikes and canals to bring their growing young country together. Then came regional
railroads and, after the Civil War, transcontinental railroads that connected what was by
then a continental nation. Closer to our own time we built nationwide electricity grids,
nearly universal plain old telephone service, and an elaborate interstate highway system.
We did these gigantic infrastructure build-outs, more often than not, by working
together--private enterprise in the lead, to be sure, but encouraged by visionary public
policy, by a sense of where the country needed to go in order to redeem its promise and
potential. We did it with proactive cooperation among federal, state and municipal
governments. That was this country's framework--our "how-to" manual--for building
up and moving forward. It's how we built the place!
But then, in the past decade or two or three, somehow we fell victim to a strange
and totally unhistorical assumption that broadband--the roads and bridges and highways
of the Twenty-first century--would get built without any special effort like those we had
made earlier. We shied away from enlightened public policy encouragement on the silly
and unbusiness-like assumption that business would build this new broadband
infrastructure even in places where business had no incentive to go. That cost our
country a lot. We lost precious time. We lost jobs. We sacrificed opportunities and
clearly endangered our international competitiveness. We watched our global leadership
fade as the United States fell further and further behind other countries. We can debate
whether we fell to 10th or 15th or 24th place in broadband penetration, but I don't believe
it's worth the argument. None of those rankings is where your country and mine ought to
So it was music to my ears when Congress, in early 2009, finally called for the
development of a National Broadband Plan. Since my confirmation as a newly-minted
Commissioner in 2001, I had been pushing for a national broadband strategy. Almost
every other industrialized nation had one--it was long past time for us to get in the game.
Congress tasked the FCC to develop the plan and, just over a year ago, the Commission
delivered with a set of clear objectives and a considered strategy aimed at getting all
Americans connected to fast and affordable broadband service.
Since the National Broadband Plan was released, the Commission has taken
important actions to implement many of its recommendations. We've made
improvements to the E-Rate program, so schools and libraries can bring higher-speed
broadband at lower cost to their communities. We worked with our state colleagues to
begin reforming the Lifeline and Link-Up programs. We revamped our pole attachment
rules to promote competition and reduce barriers to broadband deployment, by ensuring
that wireline and wireless service providers can obtain more timely access to
infrastructure at reasonable rates. Just last month, the Commission approved data
roaming rules so that customers of wireless carriers big and small can count on being able
to use e-mail, social media, and all the myriad applications of their smartphones when
they move about the country.
The Commission also took a step forward on an issue that has always been the
centerpiece of my broadband agenda--preserving a free and open Internet. You don't
have to dig very deeply to realize that most Americans have a broadband monopoly or, at
best, duopoly from which to choose. Without adequate competition in the Internet access
service market, allowing these companies to exercise unfettered control over consumer
access to the Internet not only creates risks to technological innovation and economic
growth, but also poses a real threat to freedom of speech and the future of our democracy.
I'll talk a little more about that in a minute. My point here is that having rules of the road
gives the communications industry the certainty it needs to do its job of building and
managing this nation's great communications networks, operating within a public policy
framework that gives consumers the protections they need and deserve.
So we've made some important down-payments to advance our broadband plan.
But I am the first to acknowledge--indeed, to advocate--that there is more, much more,
work to be done. But the good news is this--we have a tremendous opportunity this year
to accomplish truly good and historic things. I'm an optimist. All five Commissioners at
the FCC agree that reform of the Universal Service and Intercarrier Compensation
systems is at the top of our agenda, and I believe we have an unprecedented level of
agreement and commitment on the need to transform these legacy mechanisms to meet
our going-forward communications infrastructure needs.
In the last century, our commitment to Universal Service ensured that almost all
of our citizens--urban and rural--had access to "plain old telephone service"--POTS as
it's called. But in this new century we need the "pretty awesome new stuff"--the
PANS--too. The Pots and the pans! We need to find ways to do the same nearly-
ubiquitous build-out for broadband because all of us benefit when more of us are
connected. The Universal Service Fund and Intercarrier Compensation system are the
reason that communications infrastructure has been deployed in many rural, insular, and
high cost areas--those places where there would otherwise have never been a private
sector business case for high-quality voice service or broadband. And we need to keep
these accomplishments in mind as we reform the Fund. But the legacy support
mechanisms that we have today are simply not up to meeting the challenges of the Digital
Age. They are substantively obsolete and deficient. And they have lost the credibility
they need to be sustained. Consumer credibility, market credibility and political
credibility--they're all gone. The current system is byzantine and broken--plagued by
litigation, self-help, and market power as substitutes for the honest rules we need to
minimize arbitrage, promote investment and deployment, and maximize the opportunity
for new technologies to flourish.
The Commission has committed to rationalizing this system and to providing a
stable and predictable framework for reform. We have our work cut out to deliver on that
promise. To truly reshape these systems will require a commitment to shared sacrifice
and an ability to rise above the clamor for whatever piece of the status quo that has been
beneficial to any one particular private interest. Everyone is going to have to give a little
so that we can together gain a lot. That includes me as a Commissioner--I know that I
too will be making some compromises if we are going to get this out the door. I expect
that we will have a comprehensive transition plan in place before the end of this year,
including formative Reports and Orders that will put us well down the road toward a
system that we've waited for far too long.
I want to emphasize to all parties with an interest in these proceedings--Universal
Service and Intercarrier Compensation--that the time for everybody's best ideas is now.
We are beyond the time for "Dear Santa Claus" letters and self-serving wish lists, given
the timetable the Commission is on to vote these items this summer. Anyone interested
in being part of the solution needs to get to their bottom line, to their final proposals,
now. I remember the oft-repeated adage of my old boss, South Carolina's great Fritz
Hollings, that "decisions without you are most often decisions against you," so folks need
to get down to final ideas and bottom lines as the Commission writes its Orders in the
weeks--yes, I said weeks--just ahead.
As we move forward on Universal Service and Intercarrier Compensation, along
with the rest of our broadband agenda, the FCC cannot forget that we need to partner
with our state and local colleagues. On that front, the Commission recently adopted a
Notice of Inquiry that asks how we can work more effectively with state, local, Tribal,
and federal entities to facilitate access to rights of way and wireless facility siting. I have
always maintained that this kind of cooperation was envisioned and encouraged by the
Telecommunications Act of 1996. We should always be mindful of, and build upon, the
experiences and knowledge that exist in such abundance at all levels of government. This
much we know: in order to spread the wonders of broadband to every corner of this
country we are going to need a set of best practices in place that will both expand the
reach and reduce the costs of deployment. While we work to make broadband a reality,
we need to be cognizant of the authority that local, state and Tribal entities have over
rights-of-way and the siting of wireless facilities. Getting high-speed, value-laden
broadband out to every citizen in the land is, if it is to become reality, a partnership
exercise. That means the private sector and the public sector--the pubic sector including
federal, state and local levels. We need to gather the right data and input from all relevant
stakeholders, so I encourage you all to participate in this proceeding.
Among the other recommendations of the National Broadband Plan, I know that
many folks in this room cheered the recognition of the importance of the ability of tribal,
state, regional and local governments to build their own broadband networks. My
colleague Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has been highlighting the importance of
municipal broadband as an important tool to address the digital divides in our country.
As most of you know, I have been pushing municipal broadband for a long, long time.
When incumbent providers cannot serve the broadband needs of some localities, local
governments should be allowed--no, encouraged--to step up to the plate and ensure that
their citizens are not left on the wrong side of the great divide. So it is regrettable that
some states are considering, and even passing, legislation that could hinder local
solutions to bring the benefits of broadband to their communities. It's exactly the wrong
way to go. In this context, too, our previous infrastructure challenges must be the guide.
The successful history of rural electrification, as one example, is due in no small part to
municipal electric cooperatives that lit up corners of this country where investor-owned
utilities had little incentive to go. Those coops turned on the lights for a lot of people!
You know, our country would be a lot better off if we would learn from our past rather
than try to defy or deny it.
Finally, allow me to address something we need to think more about in the
context of our changing communications landscape. We have a stark small "d"
democratic challenge to overcome as we move into a new era of communications with
one another. It is to foster a broad information infrastructure and to guarantee the flow of
news and information throughout the land. This is not a new challenge. Our Founding
Fathers considered this first with newspapers--the information infrastructure of their day.
Washington, Jefferson and Madison understood that their fledgling country's future
depended upon an informed citizenry, and they found ways--notably a large postal
subsidy for the national distribution of newspapers--to ensure the widest possible
dissemination of news and information to fuel the nation's conversation with itself. We
sought to assure similar ubiquitous access with broadcast television, and further ensure
that access of information when cable was a nascent industry. Now we must make sure
that news and information are available through broadband and the Internet.
There is no doubt that many Americans are increasingly accessing news and
information via the Internet--whether it's reading the newspaper digitally, watching a
news station video online, reading various blogs, or going through a news aggregator to
pick out the information they are looking for. There may be no greater benefit that
broadband can deliver than its ability to help inform our civic dialogue and stimulate
citizen engagement in our democracy. But we cannot put our heads in the digital sand
and assume that in-depth news and accountability journalism will magically appear
online while it has been disappearing in our traditional media. We all know, I think, that
thousands of journalists are walking the street in search of a job rather than walking the
beat in search of a story, and that hundreds of newsrooms have been shuttered or put on
starvation diets. Investigative journalism is on the endangered species list. I won't go
into the reasons why in great detail here, but the short version is an undisciplined era of
rampant private sector speculation and consolidation that shrank news production and the
process was aided and abetted by successive Federal Communications Commissions that
encouraged it all, blessed it all, and walked willingly away from its public interest
responsibilities. The newspaper and the TV newsroom still produce probably more than
90% of the news we get--even the news we read online--it's just that there's so much
less of it--so much less in-depth reporting, so much less accountability journalism, so
few reporters in state capitals and fewer bureaus around the world compared with what
used to be.
Unless we fix the problems facing traditional news outlets, today's problems in
journalism will only continue, and probably get worse, in the broadband world of
tomorrow. Right now I don't see the model, the mass or the momentum in new media to
fill the void that has eviscerated traditional media. And we don't have the time to wait
for something that may never occur. We just have to find ways now to ensure that
American citizens have access to a worthy media by reasserting public interest values for
traditional broadcast media and taking other steps that I will be happy to talk about to
make sure the digital world is able to realize its huge potential to nourish our democratic
dialogue. And we need to be especially vigilant that we don't allow the dynamic,
opportunity-creating potential of broadband and the Internet to travel down the same road
of consolidation and homogenization that inflicted so much damage on traditional media.
We all remember that famous quote from Thomas Jefferson who, when talking
about newspapers--the broadband of its time--said that, if given the choice, he would
prefer newspapers without government over a government without newspapers. But that
wasn't all he said. Jefferson went on to say, "But I should mean that every man should
receive those papers, and be capable of reading them." At this critical juncture two
hundred years later we would be wise to heed that advice. That is why I am also a
supporter of what are called the new literacies--digital literacy, media literacy and news
literacy. It's crucial that meaningful support is given to educate our citizens about how
important this is to their futures and that they must learn how to navigate the awesome
power of the Internet. It's crucial that, with the proliferation of websites, our young
people--and us elders, too--can distinguish between trustworthy and not-so-trusty places
on the Net and that we provide our young citizens the education they need to create
media and to be their own editors. And it's crucial that our new town square of
democracy, which will be paved with broadband bricks, is open to all and accessible by
all. These are the kinds of things we need to be doing now, not only to instill the
importance of quality journalism and find ways to support its creation, but to strengthen
our democracy through a citizenry armed with the news and information it needs to make
informed decisions about the future of our country.
Thank you for allowing me to share some of my thoughts with you about the
challenges and opportunities ahead. We've got a lot of work to do to ensure that
everyone in this country has equal opportunity in this new Digital Age--no matter who
they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives.
Working together, we can get this job done and keep the United States a world leader in
technology, innovation, and consumer opportunity. We've done it before. I think we can
do it again. Don't you?
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