White House Tech Policy Called 'Magical Thinking'

Bush policy draws criticism for failing to promote effective competition. 

LOS ANGELES-No conference on technology policy would be complete without a debate on where America stands in the global competition race.

Is the pipe half full or half empty? Not surprisingly, the talk at the second annual Tech Policy Summit was decidedly mixed.

"The U.S. is still the most dynamic broadband economy in the world," said Ambassador Richard Russell, the associate director of the White House's Office on Science and Technology Policy. "As opposed to being miles ahead, though, we're only a little ahead."

But Yale Law School's Susan Crawford called Russell's position "magical thinking. We're not doing well at all." She proceeded to call the White House's effort "completely inadequate on broadband competition."

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Crawford added that what America needs is "access to a general communication structure that is open with universal access," a notion characterized by Russell as a "tragic mistake" and invoked an image of a single, regulated monopoly.

"More pipes into the home is the key," Russell said.

Crawford, though, said the administration has failed to promote competition through its free-market approach, noting that even the recent 700MHz spectrum auction is not likely to change the competitive landscape much, since Verizon Wireless won the best slice for wireless broadband. "The big actors [telecoms and cable companies] are running regional duopolies," she said.

Russell said there is no need for any new legislation to create a more competitive atmosphere. "People don't understand how hard it is to write legislation," he said, citing the 1996 Telecommunications Act as a prime example.

As originally passed by Congress, lawmakers envisioned the act creating competition by forcing telecoms and cable companies to share their lines at discounted prices with competitors.

"Look how that turned out. [Congress] decided to have everyone share the same line and the wire was copper," Russell said. "The administration has opposed any new legislation because you never know how it might turn out."

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Joe Waz, Comcast's vice president of external affairs and public policy, blamed the failure of the 1996 legislation on "endless gaming of the system by the incumbents." M2Z Networks Chairman and CEO Milo Medin laid the 1996 act's failure at the feet of politicians. "Congress was trying to cut the baby in half. Politicians love this sort of thing," he said.

Crawford said Congress' primary mistake was imposing a "thy shall cooperate" regime on the Baby Bells and cable companies. However, they did not and proceeded to launch a blizzard of protracted litigation.

By the end of the debate, Crawford was the only member of the panel still insisting on an activist Congress to address issues such as network neutrality and network management. The other members were putting their faith in the free market.

"This is really about the rights of unborn technology," she said.