By William G. Korver, Reporter, BroadbandCensus.com
WASHINGTON, June 10 - Network Neutrality was the key sticking point in a Tuesday presidential debate, by proxy, between two former chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission chairmen: Reed Hundt and Michael Powell.
“Only those who are not willing to embrace the future” will not sign Net Neutrality into law, said Hundt, who was President Clinton’s first FCC chairman.
Hundt was standing in for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who came out early in favor of Net Neutrality rules.
Michael Powell stood by Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Like Powell, McCain is skeptical of imposing Net Neutrality requirements in law.
Powell said that regulation retards economic development, and imposing Net Neutrality rules would be premature.
Although proponents of Net Neutrality differ in their prescription, most favor laws barring Bell, cable and wireless carriers from discriminating in the rates that they charge businesses for gaining preferential treatment on their communications networks.
Hundt cited Verizon’s initial attempt to not allow NARAL, which favors abortion rights, to send text messages over its wireless network. One “needs no more evidence” for legislation, he said.
Hundt also said that re-imposing common carrier regulation would be good for innovation.
Powell disagreed. While McCain believes that the Internet should remain free and open, he said, McCain favors approaching the issue from the perspective of enforcing antitrust law after “demonstrable evidence” of anti-competitive practices. Existing actions by carriers did not warrant new rules, he said.
Powell was the first FCC chairman under President George W. Bush. But Powell owes his primary political allegiance to McCain, who was Senate Commerce Committee Chairman when he made sure Powell was appointed as an FCC commissioner in 1997.
The pair also clashed over media and communications ownership in the debate, which was organized by the Federalist Society and took place at the National Press Club.
Hundt criticized what he called the “Bush-McCain administration” for an increase in the consolidation in the telecommunications industry. Powell said the decision to allow a merger was an executive duty, not one for the legislature, and that McCain should not be held responsible for consolidation.
Hundt said McCain wrote a 2003 letter to the FCC supporting Powell’s efforts to ease restriction on media acquisitions at the time. He also said that McCain never publically stated his opposition to consolidation.
Powell called this remark “cheeky.” He also reminded Hundt of his having allowing several mergers to pass through the FCC during his tenure as chairman, from 1993 to 1997.
On the subject of the Fairness Doctrine, a controversial former requirement imposing government rules on broadcast owners, Hundt refused to offer his opinion.
The rivals agreed on the fact that expanding broadband penetration and access was of great importance. Energy consumption would decrease by as much as five percent if each American was able to receive video over broadband, said Hundt.
Powell agreed that broadband was the “critical underpinning” for the information industry. Increased access to broadband technology could solve current problems of health care, education, the economy, immigration and worker displacement. McCain wants to increase broadband deployment through government purchasing and through financial incentives to invest, said Powell.
Another area of disagreement included how an Obama administration, or a McCain administration, might approach the Universal Service Fund and its E-rate component. The $7 billion fund subsidizes telephone services in rural areas and Internet connections to schools and libraries.
The potential role of the USF in subsidizing broadband is a currently under debate in Congress and at the FCC.
Hundt touted Obama as a candidate well versed in technology, and well equipped to use information technology to improve the operation of government.
Powell said that McCain is knowledgeable of technology through his role as former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Powell praised McCain for understanding that government must create an environment encouraging American innovation. In order to create such a model, Americans must have access to risk capital, and entrepreneurs deserve “to enjoy the fruits of their labor.”
Powell also said that McCain opposes increasing corporate taxes, understands the importance of a skilled workforce – by overhauling immigration law – and believes in light regulation and open markets.
Hundt countered that it “was not even a close question” that McCain “doesn’t pursue goals of technological growth,” and that Obama desired to aid technology entrepreneurs.
Hundt also criticized Bush and McCain for their support of the Iraq invasion of 2003, including “buffalo[ing]” the American people into believing it was justified.
-Cassandre Durocher, Reporter, BroadbandCensus.com, contributed to this report.