Jump-starting our tech policy.
With President Bush's approval rating hovering in the 30s, just about everyone has an opinion on what George W. has done wrong in the past seven years. But not everyone can explain what the next president must do to fix it. So we've called in some experts to tell us. Fixing It is a 10-part series to be published over the course of this week with contributions from some of our favorite writers, offering detailed policy prescriptions for the next president, whomever that may be, on how to quickly undo some of the damage. One of our contributors wryly describes the series as "News You Can Use. If You Happen To Be President." Read the other entries here.
Perhaps the only thing that's actually improved over the last eight years under President Bush is technology (if not tech policy). In the sense that Nixon presided over an age of great films like The Godfather, the Bush era was also the age of Wikipedia, search engines, YouTube, and Facebook. But the Bush system of benign neglect can only go so far, leaving plenty to fix as soon as the next president takes office.
Here are a few suggestions for things we can fix right away:
• Appoint a broadband czar. Most people in technology will tell you that the leading problem today—the one thing sinking all boats, so to speak—is the broadband last mile, the final connection between people and the Internet. Since 2000, computers have become faster, hard drives cheaper, and free e-mail better, but for the vast majority of Americans, Internet access remains clunky. Same goes for wireless broadband (cell phones with good Internet access), which is arriving, but slowly and expensively. These facts limit what everyone in the tech and media industries can imagine as effective new products. They are also beginning to put the United States at a disadvantage as compared with nations in Asia and Europe that have invested more.
It's a daunting problem with a long history of both public and private failure. Unlike, say, building a better dating service, broadband is an infrastructure problem that requires solutions akin to improving roads or plumbing. National infrastructure policy is tough, and, at its worst, Bush's approach has borrowed largely from Emperor Nero.
To start fixing things, the next president should immediately announce a national broadband policy with this simple goal: to put the United States back into undisputed leadership in wireless and wire-line broadband. But the question is how, and that's where things get complicated. Proposed fixes abound: pay Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast to build it? Treat the Internet's pipes like the interstate highways, and have the government build them? Use tax credits to encourage consumers to buy their own fiber connections? Sell property rights in spectrum or create a "mesh" wireless commons?
No one really knows what the best answer is. That's why the next president should appoint a specialized broadband czar to get after the problem. Right now, broadband is no one's responsibility, and the buck keeps getting passed between industry, Congress, the White House, and the FCC. The point of a czar would be to make it someone's job to figure out what it will take to fix broadband.
• Create the FCC dream team. The next president will have the opportunity to appoint an entirely new Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is the principal American regulator of communications, setting many of the most important rules for information economy. The appointment opportunity shouldn't be wasted—the next president could and should dramatically transform what the FCC can be.
Once upon a time, actual experts were appointed to the commission. The first commission, in 1927, was, as historian Philip Rosen writes, "a remarkable group." It included a former admiral who was a naval radio expert, an inspector from the Commerce Department, an engineer and editor from McGraw-Hill, a practicing broadcaster with a Ph.D. in English, and a state Supreme Court judge. Today, none of these people would be considered for the job.
Instead of communications expertise, the leading qualifications are now mostly political. Preferred experience includes time logged as a Capitol Hill staffer or in state government; work as a Washington, D.C., telecom attorney and/or lobbyist; some campaign experience; and buy-in from a major industry. Yes, many talented people possess these qualifications, and the FCC has, and continues to have, great leaders. But at some level the approach is like choosing from among Nike's lawyers to find coaches for the U.S. Olympic team. At its worst, it means commissioners show up with "team loyalty"—a duty to serve the interests of one of the major industries. And lax restraints on lobbying post-FCC service exacerbates the problem—why make your future boss angry?
The next president needs to break this tradition. She or he should search far and wide (yes, even outside of Washington, D.C.) for the wisest tech experts and visionaries to try to create an FCC dream team. The yardstick is the 1927 commission. By 2010, we should ask whether the next administration has managed to at least equal President Coolidge in the quality of its appointments.