Net Neutrality meets Vast Wasteland - The role of FCC & our public interest

Incendiary language fired between combatants, clandestine meetings, highly-charged rhetoric ... who knew that dry ole' telecomm policy making could be so dramatic?

Over the past few months, the normally bureaucratic Federal Communications Commission keeps taking a starring turn at the center of public debate and corporate wrangling in moments like these:

  • The April federal appeals court ruling in favor of Comcast's blocking tactics which noted that the FCC had limited power over Web traffic under current law -- and the FCC's subsequent counter punch to change that law.
  •     * The public battles between factions that have made Net Neutrality a household phrase.
  •     * The "secret" meetings with telecom titans and other stakeholders at the end of June.
  •     * The decision to put the brakes on Comcast's acquisition of NBC this week.

Sure, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 drew the attention of industry camp followers, but the war cries around Net Neutrality and public interest issues are bringing the biggest general awareness boost to the agency since ... well, since Newton Minnow called television programming a 'vast wasteland.'

Back in May of 1961  Minnow, then the chair of the FCC, gave a landmark speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. It was entitled "Television and the Public Interest."

    When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
    But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

In 1961, television was fast becoming entrenched in the mainstream. The very first televised presidential press conference had been held that January by President Kennedy.
Color - COLOR! - was the hot new thing. Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color would be debuting in September on NBC. NBC - the same NBC about to be swallowed by Comcast today - was leading the race towards color programming.

By 1961, television was no longer a novelty. Close to 90 percent of US households had acquired a TV set of some sort over the past decade. It was clear that television was an industry on the rise, controlled by three networks. 

Television, of course, did become the medium that marked and shaped the latter half of the century, creating empires of both distribution and content. It changed the way we interact, entertain, and inform. 

Critics say it made us passive and lazy, dumbed us down, and turned off our brains - the boob tube that resulted from that vast wasteland.

However, it also made us visual, showed us places and people and views we couldn't have imagined from words alone, jump-started a generation to reading literacy, and created new forms of expression - the results of programming in the public interest.

In 1961, Minnow's speech brought the good and the bad to the public's attention. The potential for public good ... and the danger of the vast wasteland. People sat up and listened and the regulatory agency quickly moved into the spotlight and took the lead on a push-pull that would go on for years.

If you think TV was world-shaping, though, wait until all the ramifications of the Internet appear. We're at roughly the same developmental stage with broadband and its applications that the world was with television when Mr. Minnow gave us his 'vast wasteland' phrase.

Most of us have some form of connectivity.  Three companies - Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T - control most of our access to it. Empires of distribution and content and application have been built.

Pundits say it is ruining us. Counter-pundits say it is opening new horizons. Early adopters already mourn for the content that is no more.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was, perhaps, a few years too early. The rewrite was desperately needed, but we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg, the start of the real issues. Those issues are on the front burner today.

The activist FCC we're seeing this year is the FCC we need. It is a policy and regulatory body acting in the spirit of public interest -- the public interest with which it is entrusted.

It is acting in the spirit of Minnow, holding forth on the potential and potential downside of a


  •     Net Neutrality is about keeping the network open - keeping it free from the whims of three profit-driven gatekeepers.
  •     The National Broadband Plan - although lacking a catchy phrase like 'wasteland' - does makes it clear that broadband is part of the public good and it articulates steps toward keeping it that way. If you've not read it, take a look at
  •     The statements about wireless bills and use of spectrum for mobile devices maybe aren't perfect, but they are pushing us to think about what we need for the mobile generation we are fast growing into.

Standing up for the public interest isn't always pretty work. Millions of dollars have millions of reasons to hurl mudballs and trash talk. And that's all the more reason the FCC we're seeing is the FCC we need.

Digital technologies are maturing right under our eyes, becoming the norm and becoming the base of all our communication tools. To sell them out to the highest bidder or the deepest pocketbook would be a loss beyond imagination and a tragedy whose outcome we won't fully understand until it is too late.

I know this will make some of you gasp in pain -- but there are things more important and enduring than corporate profit. Let's hope that we -- and the FCC -- never lose sight of them and never lose belief in what they mean. welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on