Today Senator John Kerry spoke to The New Republic’s conference on telecommunications policy. The forum focused on the reauthorization of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Senator Kerry’s remarks follow as prepared.
“Ten years ago, ‘broadband’ wasn’t part of our vocabulary. Today, 35 million households enjoy broadband service – a lot more, but nothing compared to what they’re doing in South Korea and elsewhere. Ten years ago only 25 million people used any wireless device. Today, 192 million Americans use cell phones, PDAs or laptops with WiFi access – again, a huge improvement, although not to the level of some of our competitors. There’s no doubt much has changed since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and we all tend to focus on the technological changes. But the important changes have not been limited to technological innovation.
“The industry has undergone a massive restructuring. Businesses that never competed with each other-whether due to differences in technology, geography or regulation-are now in direct competition. As a result, telecomm is a fundamentally different industry today than it was in 1996.
“The same goes for our economy. The rapid globalization of the past ten years has transformed the rules by which nearly every American business must operate. If we handle it right, this new arena can be a mutually beneficial opportunity for the telecom industry and the economy. Innovation is the great currency today, and this industry has plenty to spare. A new wave of change powered by a mass market in broadband and high-capacity Internet service can bring interactivity, full-motion video and a host of other functions rich in data and experience.
“It is not hyperbole to say that the innovation still ahead of us will touch almost every aspect of how we communicate in our businesses and our personal lives. It will improve our education; enhance health care services; connect small businesses to markets; drive productivity in the manufacturing and service sectors; and give consumers greater choice in the marketplace. But the conditions must be right for innovation.
“For this to happen, given the incredible reach of this industry, we need to recognize that all of America has a stake in this debate. All Americans need affordable access to voice, video and Internet services. Millions of companies, large and small, need a reliable network to reach their customers. The reality today is that individuals and businesses cannot compete without access.
“We have a moral obligation to get this right. Our health care professionals believe a safe system to move data from patient to doctor will save countless lives and reduce costs. Our first responders need a dependable, interoperable system to communicate in emergency situations. And if we expect our rural and inner city areas to begin sharing in our prosperity, we need to make sure we don’t leave them behind.
“Look, all of these stakeholders have legitimate concerns and all of them need a seat at the table as we move to reform our telecom laws. But we can’t afford to get this wrong. The success of our economy for the next 15-20 years depends on us getting this right. To do that, our policy must be guided by our collective concern for our ability to succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
“Business leaders repeatedly tell me that their greatest opportunity and their greatest challenge are one and the same: the global economy. I agree. If we compete globally, we will succeed, and if we can’t, we will fail.
“Right now, I don’t like what I’m seeing. I read last week that Toyota is putting their new plant in Canada because of they have concerns about the education level of our workforce. China and India are set to outpace us in phD’s in a few years, and they’re already graduating more engineers. And the Administration is set to cut federal research. It doesn’t make sense. We’re falling behind, and we’re not doing anything about it.
“If we start making the right investments in human capital and our economic future in general, telecom can be a key to our competitive strategy. High-speed links are the lifeline to the new economy. Moving vast data quickly and effortlessly will help our companies compete. This is true whether we’re talking about health records, financial data or design plans. I see communications as a critical element in assuring our long-term position in the global economy. It may make the difference in whether a business operates in America or abroad. And we know telecom creates jobs. I’ve seen it first hand in Massachusetts.
“As we move forward to create a legal framework in which telecom can play this critical role, our policies must take into account a rapidly changing world-a world in which technology and the marketplace are unpredictable. The new wave of communications-driven growth we hope to spur will surely be different than the first. And the laws we have now-as well-intended as they may have been-no longer reflect technology or the marketplace.
“As we move forward, there are some key issues that demand our attention and some revision in the law – particularly consumer protection, the digital divide, competitiveness and innovation.
“There are critical issues around consumer demand for affordable access to basic phone and Internet service, and to diverse music, movies and other content. These issues matter a great deal. “And as much as advanced communications technology has dispersed throughout the economy and elevated our quality of life, too many Americans are still left behind. We have narrowed the digital divide, but we have not closed it. For that reason, I support attempts by underserved local communities to deliver advanced broadband services to its citizens.
“We also must foster a marketplace driven by intense competition between and among technologies, companies and other stakeholders. Wireless broadband is a good example of both a new competitor and innovator. It’s time to open a platform for innovative technologies like this to compete with new services and bring down prices. Congress must complete the DTV transition, free up the 700 MegaHertz band, and allow competition to flourish.
“In addition, several Bell companies have recently announced their intent to offer video programming using broadband platforms. Efforts are already underway in Massachusetts. This decision provides a promise of enhanced competition in the video market. Competition means better consumer choice and competitive pricing. We should encourage that development, and seek balance between competing interests.
“We also need to be more supportive of innovation. The DTV debate provides an opportunity. We know that a dozen nations are ahead of us in the deployment of high-speed Internet service. We can free Spectrum as part of the DTV transition to unleash new wireless technologies. Why not let the established firms, municipalities, entrepreneurs and innovators take that analog spectrum to develop advanced wireless technologies? Allowing a piece of that Spectrum to operate without license should be explored. These are the kind of options we have to consider.
“As long as we keep the long-term interests of the American people at heart, and avoid getting weighed down by inter-industry spats – we will have served the American people well. I’m confident if we look at our communications policy through the lens of the American consumer-the firefighter, police officer or EMT responding to an emergency-the entrepreneur with a revolutionary idea-or the well-intentioned business-we will get it right.
“I look forward to working with Senator Pryor, Senator Lieberman and the rest of my colleagues to get this right, and as always welcome your advice and support. Thank you.”