Broadband in Rural? The Campaigns Talk
Both presidential candidates promise to bring broadband to rural America. But…they have different approaches.
Being connected in Yonder
Republican presidential candidate John McCain tells reporters that he doesn't "expect to set up my own blog." What an understatement. McCain is just now "learning to get online myself." Forget about text, Twitter or Blackberry. The Democrat Barack Obama, meanwhile, looks like any kind of geek around Austin, with his wireless machinery strapped to his belt like six-shooters.
The difference between McCain (who lives in the age of the IBM Selectric) and the tech-loving Obama has made for some fun journalistic comparisons. But what do the candidates mean for technology in Yonder?
Last week National Public Radio interviewed each campaign's top technology adviser. Former Federal Communication chief Bill Kennard spoke for Obama. Former FCC chief Michael Powell represented McCain.
Powell talked about a "somewhat philosophical difference" between his man, McCain, and Obama. "Senator Obama and his advisers certainly have a much greater faith in government's role to be a steward of managing economic conditions and managing competitive choices in a much more intrusive way than Senator McCain does. I think there are certainly a number of specific issues where there may be some daylight, but sometimes they are (more) method than principle, such as Net neutrality. Senator Obama has said quite clearly that he strongly supports Net neutrality legislation and some of the principles of the telephone network regulating that part of the economy. Senator McCain has expressed a lot more skepticism about that."
Kennard conceded that Obama would be "certainly more activist" than McCain. "I've heard this argument," Kennard said, referring to Powell's comments about government's role in the economy, "and I believe that it's a caricature, but it also typically promotes a more big business agenda. We didn't get here with a robust Internet in this country with a hands-off approach. It required not only government investment and research, but also ensuring that we had open networks so people could access the dial-up Internet. So the argument that Senator Obama is too intrusive or it's sort of a command-and-control approach really contradicts the whole history of how we've gotten to this point to date."
Sen. Obama loves his Blackberry.
Photo: L'album di Spirit of America
Okay, but what about broadband access in rural areas? Here are the questions and answers, beginning with Michael Powell of the McCain campaign:
NPR: What role should the federal government play in guaranteeing broadband access, particularly in rural communities?
Mr. POWELL: I think, actually – and he would agree – the government has an important role to play in broadband access in rural communities. In fact, the senator is promoting a program called People Connect, in which he would hope to provide tax benefits and financial benefits to companies who would provide those services to low-income users and rural users.
I think the problem in rural parts of America are that the economics are not nearly as compelling as they are in metropolises like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, and it may require some government assistance, either through financial subsidy policy or other kinds of creative tools like community or municipal broadband services that help bring those people into the cosmos of technology and connects them to the wonderful benefits that the Net provides.
Now, Bill Kennard, with the Obama campaign:
NPR: Now, we just heard Michael Powell, who acknowledged that it won't be easy getting broadband companies to invest in rural areas, but he says it's something that John McCain is committed to doing. What is Senator Obama's plan for this?
Mr. KENNARD: Well, there again you have a stark difference between the two candidates. Senator McCain has not been supportive of the universal service fund in the country. That is a mechanism that we've used for decades in this country to get phone service into rural areas. Senator Obama embraces it. Because the reality is if we rely simply on the free market, there will be many people in this country that will have to do without. And Senator Obama believes that this is not just a question of access to technology. This is fundamentally about economic development. It's about making sure that people in rural areas can participate in the Information Age."