FCC hearing looks into digital future

July 22, 2008

Privacy, fairness and commercial possibility were among the themes sounded yesterday at a hearing by the Federal Communications Commission on “Broadband and the Digital Future,” at Carnegie Mellon University.

In an unusual move, all five members of the commission came to Pittsburgh to hear testimony from panelists in two sessions, “The Future of Digital Media,” and “The Broadband of Tomorrow.” The public also was invited to comment afterward.

Mark Cuban, the Pittsburgh-born businessman who became a billionaire during the dot.com boom and used a sliver of that wealth to buy the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, was among the speakers.

U.S. Representative Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who help to organize the event, said the hearing was intended to address two major concerns — the so-called “digital divide” between those who have broadband access and those who don’t, and “net neutrality,” or the openness of the Internet.

Rep. Doyle favors a “guarantee of universal service” similar to telephone service, that views the Internet as a type of information utility. Making broadband Internet service available to all “has to be a joint effort by the federal government and the private sector,” he said.

Along with universal service, he said, the United States needs “a policy that establishes basic core principles for the Internet” to ensure that service providers do not become “gatekeepers” who can restrict users access.

“No one should be able to block you from where you go online,” he said. “The whole power of the Internet is that it has been open.”

Jon Peha, professor in both the Department of Engineering and Public Policy and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at CMU, said the goal of his testimony would be to raise questions that the commission must face, rather than to provide answers, “both about how we might try and have free and open competition among those who want to provide us with video entertainment, and also how we might protect intellectual property for those who might develop entertainment we want to watch,” because the lack of such protection could discourage creativity.

In opening comments, the commissioners themselves made their leanings clear.

Chairman Kevin J. Martin noted that he has already proposed that any winners of a recent FCC auction of broadband spectrum be required to offer a basic level of broadband free of charge to all consumers. Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said, “Consumers don’t want the Internet to become another version of old media, dominated by a handful of companies. They want choice.”

Mr. Cuban, the first panelist to speak, began by pointing out that “‘digital media’ is not synonymous with the Internet,” and suggested the greatest opportunities in digital media will lie beyond the Internet, in specialized networks that have been optimized for content distribution.

He also said “3-D will become a mainstay of the future of digital media,” moving far beyond its historically narrow terrain of 3-D movies to a broad range of applications that could include medical uses and live event broadcasts — the Mavericks’ recent experiment with broadcasting a game in 3-D was “a huge success.”

In written testimony, the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern for consumers’ privacy. The agency urged the commission to “scrutinize the growing practice of Internet service providers examining their customers’ Internet habits.”

Using “deep packet inspections,” the agency said providers can examine virtually all of a user’s online activity.

“This kind of scrutiny is ripe for abuse, especially where there is money to be made,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. ” We would never give the post office the power to route mail according to the content of a letter. The commission must ask some very hard questions about the reasons for this scrutiny.”