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8/29/2002
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On The Horizon: Let's Get Going With Simple And Affordable Broadband

Ubiquitous broadband is necessary for the Internet to live up to its full potential

Sung to the tune of "Where Is Thumbkin?":
Where is broadband?
Where is broadband?
Here I am. Here I am.
Just around the corner.
Just around the corner.
A grand slam. A grand slam.

Like a staggering boxer in the late rounds, the tech sector is trying to hold on to the ropes until the bell rings, announcing the arrival--finally!--of the Holy Grail of convergence. For some struggling companies, the last few years have been like watching individual grains of sand drop, ever so slowly, through the hourglass. After all the talk that convergence is coming, that media companies and publishing companies and entertainment companies and movie companies are all really just Internet companies, why hasn't it happened?

One reason is that we don't yet have ubiquitous broadband--a necessary condition, most would agree, for the Internet to live up to its full potential and for the Internet boom to reignite itself. There will be no true convergence without it.

However, the rollout of broadband is going to be very, very expensive, and who's going to pay for that? One view--call it the Field Of Dreams view--says, "If we build it, they will come," the "they" being consumers. The big pipe will stimulate its own demand. Consumers will come for the new applications and the new content they'll be able to get over broadband. They'll pay, too, in connection fees that will also help to foot the bill for the broadband rollout.

The other view--the "cart before the horse" view--is, "You can build it, but they won't come until the big content providers (the record companies, movie giants, etc.) put their stuff out there," something they're not going to do until they're convinced that their intellectual-property rights are protected (and that they can thereby get their share of the consumer's dollars).

The infrastructure builders are understandably uncomfortable with the Field Of Dreams view. The dot-com collapse showed how costly and painful it can be to build infrastructure "on spec," in the hopes that markets will come into existence and that demand can be created by increasing supply. But they're also reluctant to get behind the content providers' push for worldwide action to strengthen intellectual-property protection, fearful that too much protection might kill the goose that could lay the golden eggs, that too many restrictions on the content flow across the Internet will strangle the medium.

On the surface, these positions seem polarized and contentious. The debate is replete with purposeful red herrings and tactical ploys. This is all rhetoric and posturing by very sophisticated business interests that are trying to define the public debate to suit their positions and present a tone that will resonate with consumers.

Yet beneath the surface, the market opportunity that broadband presents isn't lost on anyone. As a result, the stakes are very high--no less than the future of the Internet and the networked economy. The various interests have debated fiercely to a stalemate and, devoid of leadership--policy or otherwise--broadband is sinking in the quagmire.

The irony in this debate is that Hollywood, the record industry, and telecommunications companies all need broadband for different reasons. The infrastructure needs to be upgraded to accommodate high-speed access, and content providers need the distribution mechanism. It's the future of the Internet for all the various interests involved. Yet while they argue among themselves, they've forgotten what their customers--consumers--really want: a simple, affordable, and widely available solution that's here sooner rather than later.

So whether the discussion is about the analog hole, peer-to-peer file sharing, digital rights, or piracy, let's get on with it. These very different industries and interests need to find some common ground and cooperate. If they need a third party to facilitate the discussion, so be it. Perhaps that's a role the government or academia can play.

The bottom line is we need to get broadband deployed soon or risk killing the networked economy. It's just that simple.

David Post is a Temple University law professor and senior fellow at the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at postd@erols.com. Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at bbrown2@gmu.edu.

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