FCC Commissioner Michael Copps Discusses New Report That Shows U.S. Falling Behind Rest of World in High-Speed Internet Access

StorySeptember 13, 2006
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A new report by media activist group Free Press shows that the U.S continues to lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to affordable and accessible broadband service. We speak with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps about the report. [includes rush transcript]

The U.S continues to lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to affordable and accessible broadband service according to a new report * [Download pdf]* by the media activist group * Free Press*, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union. The report also finds that contrary to the picture painted by the government, there is no sign that the digital divide in this country is closing.

The author of the report, S. Derek Turner said yesterday that, “President Bush set a goal of bringing universal, affordable high-speed Internet access to every household by 2007, We’re nowhere close to reaching that goal. Yet the Federal Communications Commission seems content to ignore the problem, manipulate the data, and pretend we’re moving forward.”

Meanwhile on Tuesday the FCC held re-nomination hearings for FCC Chair Kevin Martin. Martin was appointed by President Bush in 2001.

  • Michael Copps, FCC Commissioner.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined now by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL COPPS: Thank you for having me here this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you. Let’s talk about this report that is criticizing the FCC and Congress around broadband, saying that the United States is far behind, remains 16th in the world in broadband penetration. 14 other countries saw higher overall net growth in broadband options. The U.S. has the fourth highest level of students who have never used a computer, among these nations, exceeded only by Turkey, Slovakia and Mexico, and that population density is not a significant determinant of broadband penetration. The most important factors explaining the digital divide are household income and poverty.

MICHAEL COPPS: That’s a startling indictment, isn’t it? It bears a lot of what I have been saying, and it’s worse than that, really. The ITU, International Telecommunications Union, is the international body that ranked us as number 16. They now have a newer study out even that’s somewhat more nuanced, that goes into cell phones and home computers and everything. And you know where we are on that list? 21, right behind Slovenia and Estonia.

The reason is that we do not have a national strategy to get broadband out to our people. I think we’re probably the only industrialized country on the face of the earth that lacks a coherent national strategy to build this infrastructure, and it’s damaging for all Americans. It’s damaging for small businesses who are unable to compete, and most of all, it’s damaging for minorities and diversity communities, people who live in the inner cities and people who live in rural America, where the market, I don’t think, is just going to automatically take all of this infrastructure.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is the FCC doing about this?

MICHAEL COPPS: Not enough. We continue to analyze this in old-fashioned ways. We’re still talking about broadband as 200 kilobits. We satisfy ourselves that broadband is being reasonably deployed around the country by looking at a zip code, and if there’s one business that subscribes to broadband in that zip code, we say, “Whoopee, everything is fine and dandy. Broadband is being deployed.” So we have to start looking at it and learning what other countries are doing, who are cleaning our clock on this.

We have to look what some of our own communities are doing when the market doesn’t get there. They’re going in and building their own broadband networks to get this out to their people, because they understand in this digital age if the kid living on the farm or the inner city does not have access to high-speed broadband, he’s going to be left behind, and we’re going to end up with a digital gap in this new century of 21st century technology that’s going to be worse than the digital gap we had in the 20th century in the days of plain old telephone service.

AMY GOODMAN: And the corporations that are fighting this and fighting net neutrality, fighting community internet, saying even if they don’t wire a community — this happened in Pennsylvania — that you can’t have the free wireless internet.

MICHAEL COPPS: This is not how we built America. If you look at every infrastructure we’ve had since the beginning, whether it’s getting settlers on the land or getting produce to markets, business and government, with an active role for government, built turnpikes and roads and river and harbor improvements. After the Civil War, when we became a transcontinental country, we built the transcontinental railroad. We had even the highway system under Eisenhower in the 1950s. All of these things, you had a partnership between private sector and public sector and a national strategy and a national goal, and we got it done.

Now, here we are in the 21st century, this is our new infrastructure challenge, getting all the Americans on the information highway. And we’re just going into it without a strategy and without that kind of cooperative partnership that built the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this issue of net neutrality and corporations — many people feel the telecoms writing the legislation?

MICHAEL COPPS: We need an explicit principle of nondiscrimination. We made some progress. I pushed very hard last summer to get a statement of internet principles and net neutrality at the FCC. It wasn’t everything I would have liked. It’s not really enforceable. We need to go beyond that now and make an explicit statement that we’re not going to tolerate discrimination on the internet and then make the Federal Communications Commission the honest umpire in all of this, to handle complaints and give it the authority to do so. Some people don’t want to do that. They want to just let all of this continue with a happy notion that the marketplace is going to solve everything.

The genius of this internet was its openness. You had the dumb pipes and the intelligence on the edges. What some of the network owners are trying to do now is to put the control and the intelligence in the pipes and make us all dumb at each edge. Basically that’s what it comes down to. And that’s just a denial of everything that the internet is supposed to be. This is a wonderful dynamic, open, pro-democracy infrastructure that we need to sustain, and we need to nourish it, and we’re not getting it done.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do people enter the debate up against these massive extremely well-financed corporate campaigns?

MICHAEL COPPS: I’m convinced that everything that happens, and you know this better than me, is grassroots action on the part of democracy-inclined citizens across this country of ours. That’s how we checked the media ownership rules that Chairman Powell tried to foist on us three years ago. That’s how the citizens can have input into this debate now. Contact the FCC. Contact your representatives. Talk it up on talk radio. Write op-eds. Talk to your family. Talk to your neighbors. Make it that grassroots issue.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the biennial rule review, Commissioner Copps? And can you talk about media concentration overall?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, they’ve changed it now to a quadrennial review so that every four years we’re supposed to look at our media ownership rules and see if they are serving the public interest. We did this last in 2003, and Chairman Powell was adamant on pushing through — and he did this with his majority against my opposition and Commissioner Adelstein’s opposition — to such an extent that one big company could own in some markets in this country three television stations, eight radio stations, the newspaper — already a monopoly in most cities — cable channels, cable network and the internet provider. How does that serve localism and diversity and competition? How does that nourish the creative genius of the United States of America? How does it serve the public interest?

The people own the airwaves. There’s no broadcaster, no individual, no enterprise in this country that owns an airwave. You own the airwaves. Your listeners and viewers own the airwaves, and when people realize that and are reminded of that, they get very proprietary about them, and they see the localism and the diversity that’s been sacrificed. No local entertainment, no creative genius, everything on the playlist and the homogenized entertainment, and more damaging still, what happens to the democratic debate. No political coverage, no teeing up of controversial issues. No clash of really give-and-take and antagonistic opinions. We’ve lost a lot. Our media are supposed to be serving democracy and encouraging democracy, and they’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: Public comment period is open now for what? It’s about to close.

MICHAEL COPPS: It’s about to close on the media ownership on September 22nd, which is very close. And there’s another 60 days for reply comments, but until we vote, we are open to receiving communications, emails, letters.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do people communicate with you?

MICHAEL COPPS: You can go to fcc.gov, to the home page of the FCC. It will tell you how to do it, but just write to the FCC or email fcc.gov or —

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Lasar has an interesting website, lasarletter.com, where he posted that Clear Channel is asking for a lifting of the limits on what a radio — what a communications company can own. They have now over 1,200 radio stations. How does that work? They appeal to you? They petition?

MICHAEL COPPS: Yes. If we change now, if we go through this new ownership proceeding that’s up for grabs, and all these rules could be changed and we could lift the caps, and there will be another great wave of consolidation. I don’t think anybody really anticipated in Congress in 1996 when they changed the law that we would go from a situation where the biggest — the most stations that weren’t company-owned was maybe 75 at that time, to where you’ve got 1,200 now. But there could be a lot more.

So we’re getting into this situation, where we have distribution controlled by a very few companies, and now, very different from what it was 30 or 40 years ago, they own the content, too. And when you combine content and distribution, I believe John D. Rockefeller told us what that was, it was monopoly.

AMY GOODMAN: We have only ten seconds. I wanted to ask you about VNRs, when they’re going to be identified as that, video news releases instead of news pieces and the paying off of journalists, governments paying journalists.

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, we have a proceeding going. I hope we put it on the front burner. We’re struggling to get it on the front burner. When the American people see something that’s not produced by a station, they ought to have full disclosure and it ought to be apparent to them that they know that this is being produced by somebody else. And if there’s consideration being received for it, they certainly have to talk about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Big public hearing in Los Angeles, when?

MICHAEL COPPS: On October the 3rd in Los Angeles, media ownership, very important. It’s going to be the first of a very few, probably half a dozen hearings that the chairman has agreed to hold on media ownership.

AMY GOODMAN: FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, thanks so much for being with us.

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