Broadband: the vision thing

[I wrote the following post before a comment arrived on my June 4 entry from old pal Barri Cohen – TV and documentary producer, cultural lobbyist, policy wonk and mother, among other things. Her question is simple: “How did the FCC get a so-called ‘real’ public debate going?” Barri’s in luck, because I happen to have had that very question in mind as I was writing this and thinking, once again, about the stark differences between the unfolding broadband debates in Ottawa and Washington.]

Whatever the outcome of the CRTC’s twin proceedings on new media broadcasting and ISP traffic management, Canadian media – old, new and in between – remains a house divided. And the more we talk, the more we get buried in special pleading. Whatever happened to the vision thing?

Our system is built for family quarrels

Regulators spend a lot of time acting as referees among competing interests and reaching comprises that leave everybody at least slightly dissatisfied. But in Canada, the system is rigged to make reasonable compromises almost impossible. It also encourages the main stakeholder groups to fight a zero-sum battle for what they feel they’re owed. Very little of this has anything to do with the needs of the other 99.99% of the population or even a watered-down view of the public interest.

Look how the camps divide up over new media broadcasting. At ground level, the big fight is between those who have money – the BDUs – and those who want money from the BDUs, to wit, the lobbies that represent Canada’s actors, writers, directors and other talent. The other two major stakeholders are the broadcasters, who are in big trouble and want money of a different kind (or else programming concessions from the Commission), and the independent producers, who want the broadcasters to keep buying their stuff. Then there’s the fifth wheel, the webheads who actually make the new media content and whose voices have been drowned out in the battles over yesterday’s idea of what might make Canada great.

When everyone’s right – it’s gridlock time

Problem is, they’re all right – give or take some of the ridiculous disinformation that has circulated in Ottawa about new media. A levy on the BDUs is nuts. The cultural lobbies, however, want their members kept employed, a perfectly sensible goal as far as industrial policy goes. The broadcasters were encouraged to make a Faustian bargain that cross-subsidized Canadian shows from the margins earned by airing US drama – a now moribund business model. And the producers, who have always depended on subsidies and broadcaster quotas, are having no truck with the idea that the broadcasters should make and control all the rights to their own damn shows.

What does all this have to do with our digital future, in particular building the broadband platforms that will deliver all that putative new media broadcasting?

FCC and the US Broadband Plan

Monday wasn’t just a big day for the iPhone in San Francisco. It was also the filing deadline for comments on the FCC’s National Broadband Plan for Our Future, to be submitted to Congress in February of 2010. A Notice of Inquiry (pdf) was issued in April, with comments due last Monday and reply comments due July 7. To my convergent way of thinking, this is the proceeding we should have had in place of the CRTC’s new media and Net neutrality proceedings.

This FCC proceeding is remarkable in many respects. It has the encouragement and involvement of both Congress and the executive branch, up to and including President Obama. It has taken nothing for granted, not even how broadband should be defined. It has been launched with a government investment of $7.2 billion. It has been conducted in full public view, with vigorous debate on everything from mapping the existing broadband infrastructure to setting long-term goals for investment, accountability and future-proofing the enabling technologies. And perhaps most important, it has been treated not as remedial, but as an open-ended opportunity whose full promise can only be glimpsed at this early stage. The Benton Foundation’s Communications-related Headlines summarized some of the best comments yesterday and again this morning.

Glimmer of hope?

There are recent signs we may be on the cusp of some fresh thinking about digital media and broadband, from an unlikely quarter. On May 29, CRTC Chairman von Finckenstein spoke to the Broadcast Educators Association of Canada, a forum he was clearly using to float trial balloons. His balloons were centred on the Commission’s mandate, convergence and the Commission’s responses to convergence. He gets right down to cases and asks a couple of questions near and dear to my heart:

Should Rogers be considered as a broadcasting or telecommunications company? More importantly, does it make sense to distinguish its telecommunications activities from its broadcasting activities?

My answer to the second question is a resounding No! As for the first, well, get back to me in a few months.

While convergence has transformed both enabling technologies and the communications industries themselves, there’s “a third element in the equation that has not yet had an opportunity to catch up, and that is Canadian legislation.” In a clear and candid fashion, the Chair does something mighty unusual for a regulator: explaining how and why his tribunal is suffering from regulatory lag. Among other problems, “the Telecommunications Act was based on the principle of assuring equal access whereas the Broadcasting Act is concerned with the protection and provision of Canadian content.”

I’m especially impressed with the response to this formidable challenge:

Do two Acts provide the best tools to deal with the issues that have emerged as a result of convergence? From our perspective, the answer is no. They will eventually need to be merged under a single overarching communications policy. Of course, the responsibility for updating Canadian laws resides with Parliament and not with us.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Commission send such a clear message to our federal politicians about the need for a complete overhaul of the legislation. At the same time, the Chair is careful to explain he’s not sitting on his hands waiting for the government to spring into action. The Commission has created a new branch, Policy Development and Research, to complement the work of the two branches that have long dealt separately with broadcasting and telecommunications.

Kudos to Finckenstein for this long-overdue in-house initiative. And for the reminder that a 21st-century vision for digital media has got to come from our elected representatives. They could do worse than look very closely at how the Obama administration has orchestrated a successful public debate about the key digital enabler – next-generation broadband.