Senator Edwards: Defender Of Net Neutrality And Open Spectrum Allocations

To date we’ve had the opportunity to talk with 2008 presidential candidates Governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain about their positions on various technology related issues. As promised, Senator John Edwards, our first Democrat, is next up. See his PoliticalBase page here.

Last week we asked for your questions and received a great response. Senator Edwards has now answered many of those questions.

He is planning bold initiatives in a number of areas. He’s promising to support Net Neutrality (this issue is now falling firmly along party lines – Republicans either won’t address it or favor a free market approach; Democrats are behind it):

I believe that if we do not guarantee net neutrality, the Internet could go the way of network television and commercial radio – with just a few loud corporate voices and no room for the grassroots and small entrepreneurs.

He wants to see universal broadband available to all U.S. households by 2010, half way through his first term (and voters can therefore hold him accountable). And he’s firmly behind Google in the new mobile spectrum allocations (good update on Google’s plans is here).

When it comes to clean energy, he wants to find ways to freeze demand for electricity and reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. His plan includes a $13 billion a year New Energy Economy Fund to invest in alternative energy sources, and tax credits/guaranteed loans for renewable biorefineries.

Regarding China, Edwards says he’s pro market and wants to encourage trade and cooperation. He does not address the current issues, such as the Yahoo/China debacle, head on.

One of the best reader submitted questions asked Senator Edwards to explain the differences between his tech policies from those of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. His answer, along with the rest of the discussion, is below.

Q&A With Senator John Edwards

Michael Arrington: Let’s start with a broad question. The U.S. technology industry has been a world leader and has grown substantially through international markets, what would you do to advance these efforts?

Senator John Edwards:
I believe that the single most important factor for America’s future prosperity is investment in education, science, technology and innovation. But today we are challenged by other countries which have invested aggressively in education, engineering and infrastructure, giving them an edge in the global economy. The country that developed the Internet is now 16th in broadband deployment, and America’s competitiveness has suffered. In 2002, for the first time ever the US imported more advanced technology products than it exported—the deficit is now $40 billion. The spread of broadband has been uneven and costly, too driven by the profits of a few entrenched companies and technologies to allow the nation as a whole to realize the billions in economic benefits promised by truly universal Internet access.

I will set a goal of universal broadband by 2010, make the Research and Experimentation tax credit permanent, make higher education affordable with College for Everyone and improve patent quality by reforming our patent laws and devoting more resources to the patent office. I will also enact smart trade policies that provide a level playing field for American business and workers and fight currency manipulation and illegal subsidies.

Finally, I will reverse the trend of having America invent transformative new technologies like the electric car and the solar panel, only to have other countries lead in deploying and marketing them. As part of my plan to combat global warming, I will help American usher in a new energy economy based on clean, renewable, and energy-efficient technologies.

MA: Would you make it a priority in your first year of office to re-instate Net Neutrality as law? What is your specific plan to ensure equal access to all players, regardless of size?

JE: In May, I – like thousands of citizens – wrote a letter to the FCC urging them to guarantee net neutrality. I believe that if we do not guarantee net neutrality, the Internet could go the way of network television and commercial radio – with just a few loud corporate voices and no room for the grassroots and small entrepreneurs. Our country is already divided enough between the haves and have-nots. Where we go to school, where (and if) we get health care, whether we can retire with dignity – we have big divides in all of these areas in this country.

While we work to create One America, we should not allow the Internet to be divided or corporate censorship to take root. That would make the other important work we have to do that much harder. The Internet is not the answer to everything, but it can powerfully accelerate the best of America. It improves our democracy by making quiet voices loud, improves our economy by making small markets big, and improves opportunity by making unlikely dreams possible.

As president, I will do several things to encourage innovation and neutrality online. First, I will ensure that the FCC preserves free expression and competition on the Internet by enforcing net neutrality, ensuring no degradation or blocking of access to web sites. I will also bring the Carterfone rule to wireless so that Americans can connect any device or applications to their wireless service, just as they can to their landline phone service.

MA: The U.S. higher education system is among the best in the world. But not enough students seem to be interested in science and math at younger ages, and some studies suggest we turn out far fewer engineers than India and China, among other countries.

The purpose of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act is to help bridge the gap between primary and secondary education. Among other things, it has a goal of ensuring that every student is technologically literate by the time they finish the eighth grade, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, family income, location or disability.

Do you believe we are achieving these goals and serving our children today? What do you think is the best way to reach the goal?

JE: We all pay a price when young people who could someday find the cure for AIDS or create the next Google end up sitting on a stoop because they didn’t get the education they need. Today, too few of our schools are teaching our children creative, analytical skills, and too few students have access to the technology that can light that spark. Ninety-five percent of urban high schools report problems getting qualified science teachers. American 9th-graders are 18th in the world in science education.

No Child Left Behind has lost its way by imposing cheap standardized tests, narrowing the curriculum at the expense of science, history, and the arts and mandating unproven cookie-cutter reforms on schools. As a result, it has lost the support of teachers, principals, and parents, whose support is needed for any reform to succeed.
Every year, 200,000 college-qualified students cannot enroll because their families cannot afford it.

Our children are every bit as talented as our foreign competitors, but they have not been given the tools they need to succeed. I believe that every school should be wired and that we need to overhaul our curricula to emphasize technological skills, math and science, creative thinking and problem-solving. I also support Career Academies in high schools that link students to local employers and skills in high-demand industries, including information technology. If we do not invest in developing these skills among our children now, the United States risks becoming a technology follower, rather than a leader.

As president, I will overhaul No Child Left Behind to center our schools around children, not tests, and help struggling schools, not punish them. I will also launch a “School Success Fund,” a Marshall Plan-like effort to rebuild and restore America’s schools. I would ask teams of experienced educators, what I call “education SWAT teams,” to spend a year at struggling schools helping launch reforms where we need them the most.

To ensure that every child is prepared to succeed, I will provide resources to states to help them offer universal high-quality “Great Promise” preschool programs for four-year-olds. I will work with states to give all teachers in successful high-poverty schools up to a $15,000 raise. I will also create a national teachers’ university – a West Point for teachers – to recruit 1,000 top college students a year, train them to be excellent teachers, and encourage them to teach where they are needed most. Finally, I will create a national version of a program I started in a rural county in North Carolina, called College for Everyone, which provides a full year of public college tuition and books to any college-qualified student who is willing to work part-time.

The Digital Divide is roughly defined as the gap between those with access to computers and the Internet with those who don’t. More broadly, it includes not only access, but the skills and ability to use those resources effectively.

The controversial Federal E-rate program allocates money from telecommunication taxes to poor schools without technology resources. Some statistics suggest 100,000 or more schools have been provided with Internet connectivity and additional computers.

What is your opinion of the E-rate program? What else can be done to increase access to technology in our schools? What can be done outside of schools to address the digital divide more generally?

JE: First, let’s talk about what the digital divide really means in America. It means that while half of urban and suburban households have broadband, less than a third of rural homes do. It means that African Americans are 25 percent less likely to have Internet access at home than whites. The Internet has been an engine of innovation and opportunity – one that started in America and then revolutionized the world. Yet, here at home, too many are denied access to it, including 40 percent of rural Americans. That is just not acceptable.

As president, I would do a number of things. First, I will help create universal, affordable access to broadband. There should be no neighborhoods in America where the lights of the Internet are not on.

The starting place for that is setting a goal of giving all U.S. homes and businesses access to real high-speed Internet by 2010. I will establish a national broadband map to identify gaps in availability, price, and speed. I will also create public-private partnerships to promote deployment and require providers not to discriminate against rural and low-income areas. I will work to improve Internet accessibility for people with disabilities. I believe we need to improve the e-rate program with a goal of universally wired schools.

Since achieving truly universal broadband will require every tool at our disposal, I will encourage local service providers and municipal wireless projects, and use the newly available 700 megahertz spectrum and broadcast television white spaces to support wireless networks that can connect with all digital devices.

MA: The U.S. has fallen woefully behind Asia and Europe in terms of mobile technology innovation. Most of the innovative startups we see in the mobile space today are based outside the U.S. and have no immediate plans to enter our market.

Current rules allow mobile carriers in the U.S. to “lock in” customers, which prohibits them from adding or accessing third party services via their phone. The effect has been a stifling of competition or, as the NYT’s David Pogue puts it, a “calcification of the U.S. mobile market.”

The FCC is currently in the process of allocating a new area of the spectrum – 700MHz. There are two schools of thought surrounding these auctions.

The first, supported by the big mobile carriers, is that the new spectrum should have few regulatory requirements around how services are offered to consumers. This should maximize government revenue but would, as we’ve seen, likely result in increased calcification and reduced competition in the market.

The second, supported primarily by Google and everyone except the big carriers, is to force spectrum holders to allow open access to their platforms once they offer services. This would likely result in lower revenues to the government from these auctions, but our mobile markets could gain a competitive edge over Europe and Asia.

What is your position on the mobile spectrum? Should government force open access or should they simply auction it off to the highest bidder and let the carriers decide what types of services to offer?

JE: I was the only presidential candidate to write to the FCC in May to urge it to adopt auction rules for the 700 megahertz spectrum that would unleash the potential of smaller new entrants, transforming information opportunity for people across America — rural and urban, wealthy and not.

I called for as much as half of the spectrum to be set aside for wholesalers who can lease access to smaller start-ups, offering the potential to improve service to rural and underserved areas. Additionally, I wrote that anyone winning rights to this valuable public resource should be required not to discriminate among data and services and to allow any device or application to connect to their service, just as they can to their landline phone service. This open access rule will force service providers to compete on quality and price, not just on exclusive contracts with in-demand products.

I also support using at least part of the white space spectrum that will become available in the transition to digital TV for unlicensed wireless use. Unlicensed uses in other spectrum bands have resulted in innovations we now take for granted, such as the cordless phone. I believe that offering some of this “beachfront” broadcast spectrum for unlicensed use would not only expand wireless Internet access but would allow new technologies and business ideas to flourish, without interfering with nearby television transmissions.

MA: What will you do to encourage U.S. innovation into renewable/sustainable energy sources? Should carbon emissions be taxed? What else, if anything, should the government be doing?

JE: New energy technology holds incredible potential to unleash innovation and reshape our economy. Clean tech venture capital has doubled in the past year to $2.4 billion, and American entrepreneurs, farmers and manufacturers can lead the world in technology to generate clean, reliable energy and use it more efficiently. My climate change plan includes three great goals: reduce our carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, transform energy use in America to usher in a new energy economy, and freeze the demand for electricity with efficiency for the next decade.

I will create the $13 billion a year New Energy Economy Fund to invest in clean, renewable energies like wind, solar, and sustainable biofuels, develop a new generation of efficient cars and trucks, and put new energy-saving technologies to work in buildings, transportation and industry. The result will be more than 1 million new jobs – with a new Green Collar Jobs training program to ensure that the opportunity is widely shared.

I will make the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit permanent and provide loan guarantees for renewable biorefineries. By opening the electric grid and requiring utilities to consider local, distributed generation of electricity before investing in central power plants, I will guarantee market access for local entrepreneurs including co-operatives like “community wind” projects. I also believe that we need a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants without the technology to capture their carbon emissions, and a major investment in developing carbon sequestration technology.

We need to be honest about the need to sacrifice some as we make this transition. Under my plan, polluters will pay for all their carbon permits under a cap-and-auction system after a short transition period of less than five years. This will not be easy, but global warming is a crisis, and I believe it is time for a president to ask the American people to be patriotic about something other than war.

User Questions:

Internet Taxes

JE: I believe we must continue to keep the internet affordable and democratic. When I served in the Senate, I voted for the 2004 Internet Tax Nondiscrimination Act, which extended the federal ban on state and local Internet access taxes.

How are your high-technology policies meaningfully different from those of Clinton or Obama?

JE: I believe that I am more willing to set ambitious goals and to fight for the kind of transformation we need. For example, in the past year alone I’ve written three letters to the FCC on issues where there have been armies of lobbyists for entrenched corporate interests: net neutrality, the 700 spectrum auction and media consolidation. My philosophy on these issues is simple: we need to take away the corporate bullhorn and let many voices be heard.

But today, Washington is broken – too often, our laws are written by big corporations and their lobbyists, and what’s good for the rest of us gets lost completely. Where some of the other Democratic candidates use the language of compromise or are in fact taking money from and in support of the corporate interests who are blocking real change, I think the policies I’ve released and the way I’ve spoken out show that I’m more willing to fight to achieve the change we need.

What do you think are the responsibilities and benefits of internet companies operating in oppressive regimes like China?

JE: I firmly believe that it is good for us and good for China when Americans do business there – especially when they offer technologies with the democratizing potential of the Internet. But we have to be careful always to support our fundamental values, such as freedom, democracy and human and labor rights. I am also concerned about China’s practices like currency manipulation and unfair subsidies which threaten American competitiveness.

American businesses can have a tremendous amount of leverage over repressive regimes, as we saw in the 1980s when American companies helped open up the Soviet Union. They should refuse to cooperate with authoritarian and anti-human rights practices abroad, and help move societies like China into the world’s mainstream. In the coming years, China’s influence and importance will only continue to grow—and the United States will have to continue to show moral leadership. On issues such as trade, climate change, and human rights, our overarching goal must be to get China to commit to the rules that govern the conduct of nations.