Mr. Lieberman Goes to Silicon Valley

Broadband is fast becoming a hot political issue. Earlier this week, former U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) was in California’s Silicon Valley trying to drum up support for his “National Broadband Strategy Act of 2002,” which he plans to officially introduce on Monday.

But experts following broadband policy have not been impressed with Lieberman’s proposals, saying that his involvement in the issue seems to be motivated by the desire to take the spotlight on a hot issue more than anything else.

“I’m sure this was something designed to give him more visibility in the hot tech community,” says Randolph May, a lawyer working for The Progress & Freedom Foundation, a policy think-tank. “I assume he believes that encouraging broadband deployments is a good public policy. But getting behind this issue also enhances his resumé among the tech savvy.”

Indeed, the proposed bill, a draft of which was obtained by Light Reading in advance of its release, does not appear to be earth-shattering legislation. In essence, it calls for President Bush’s administration to issue a report within six months of the bill’s passage outlining how broadband has affected economic productivity in the United States. It would also require the administration to come up with a plan to encourage more deployment of broadband technologies such as digital subscriber line (DSL), cable modems, satellite, and wireless.

While Lieberman’s bill does not make any specific suggestions for what should be in the national broadband policy, he issued a policy white paper earlier this week detailing the issues and making some policy suggestions. In this paper, he proposes tax cuts for both users and suppliers of broadband technology.

Specifically, he says that carriers investing in broadband technology should get at least a 10 percent tax credit, and for those deploying “next-generation” broadband gear, a credit of 20 percent. He also calls for loans and grants for consumer broadband deployments in rural and low-income areas, and he suggests more government investment in research and development to improve broadband technologies.

The tough questions, though, go unanswered. Lieberman appears to be maintaining his distance from issues of competition and regulation. While he believes that all impediments to deploying broadband technologies should be eliminated, he did not address whether or not he believes current regulations are helping or hindering broadband deployment. Furthermore, he offered no opinion on what should be done to change or facilitate the regulatory process for broadband.

“We cannot avoid this debate over competition. There are many other options we can discuss, but no policy is likely to be effective unless it effectively addresses the competition question,” says the policy whitepaper. “It is too soon to propose how we should resolve this question. The attempt here is to provide a fair and balanced summary of the issues and debate.”

Telecom policy experts are unimpressed with Lieberman’s report, saying that it offers few, if any, original solutions.

“His proposal isn’t really helpful,” says May, of The Progress & Freedom Foundation. “It’s disappointing that the major thrust of his policy is a tax-and-spend program. It doesn’t address whether or not regulation is impeding or helping the deployment of broadband in any way.”

May points out that while Lieberman suggests tax cuts for both users and providers of broadband technology, those cuts must come at a price elsewhere in the budget. He also criticizes the fact that Lieberman’s only real mention of regulation is when he directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to come up with a better framework for broadband.

Curiously, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which Lieberman currently chairs, has nothing to do with broadband or telecom. Lieberman, who has publicly stated that he would consider running for President in 2004 if former Vice President Al Gore decides not run, may be trying to beef up his political resume with this bill -- perhaps to curry favor with influential votes in tech-heavy California.

Whatever his motivations, supporters of a national broadband policy say Lieberman’s proposal could spur the White House into action. Even though representatives from the administration have stated previously that a policy is in the works, nothing has been officially announced. Spokespeople from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the federal agency that would handle such policy development, declined to comment for this story.

— Marguerite Reardon, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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