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How to end the World Wide Wait

By William E. Kennard

The first message to be sent over the Arpanet, the forerunner to the Internet, was neither as eloquent as Samuel Morse's "what hath God wrought" nor as practical as Alexander Graham Bell's "Watson, come here. I need you." Rather, it consisted of two letters, "L-O." Apparently, the researchers testing the system tried to send "log-in," but the network crashed before they could finish typing.

From this inauspicious beginning 30 years ago we now have more than 130 million people world-wide sending e-mail, surfing the Web, watching streaming video, listening to music and even making phone calls over the Internet.

But as anyone who has ever gone on-line knows, the World Wide Web is too often the World Wide Wait. To take full advantage of the Internet, we need "broadband" connections--fatter pipes to handle the crush of information and complex applications now available.

A fierce battle has erupted over what to do with one of the possible broadband connections: cable. Some fear that cable companies will get a lock on the broadband market, dictating who can connect to the system and where users can go once on it. Calling for "open access," they want the Federal Communications Commission to step in and regulate the cable platform. Recently, local cable franchising authorities have decided to make open access a condition of doing business in localities from Portland, Ore., to Broward County, Fla.

The quest for openness in the Internet is in line with the history of this medium's remarkable development. Indeed, the Internet's open protocols as well as FCC decisions not to regulate the Internet and to open up access to the phone network are at the heart of the network's growth. E-mail, the Web and Internet radio are only some of the applications that have been developed and deployed in this open environment.

What we need to remember now is that no one could have predicted these innovations. We cannot regulate against problems that have yet to materialize in a market that has yet to develop. Moreover, we cannot have 30,000 local cable communities trying to make their own predictions and placing their own regulatory bets on the future.

Simply put, it's in the national interest to have a national broadband policy. That is why the FCC has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a pending Ninth Circuit case arguing that only the commission has nationwide authority over broadband providers. It is also why the FCC has decided not to intervene in this nascent broadband market. In doing so, we are following advice as old as Western civilization itself: First, do no harm--a high-tech Hippocratic Oath.

Instead, we are taking steps to ensure that there are many competitors in the marketplace, not just cable. We've made more spectrum available to wireless operators. We've made it easier for emerging competitive local phone companies to plug into the existing phone network in order to provide high-speed Internet access using a promising new technology known as digital subscriber lines. And we've decided to allow the cable companies to go ahead with their efforts to deploy broadband access without pre-emptive regulation, even as we closely monitor the marketplace for anticompetitive behavior.

We believe that by giving all competitors the tools they need to compete, we can create a robust broadband marketplace in which the American consumer will have many different options at competitive prices. Already, we are seeing the fruits of this deregulatory policy: In just the second quarter of this year, the number of DSL subscribers doubled.

Internet users want and expect choice, and they will not be satisfied unless they get it. A national policy of openness and competition has brought it to them so far; it should be our policy for the future as well.

Mr. Kennard is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Published in the Wall Street Journal, August 24, 1999.
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