Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt gave a speech at Columbia University in which he candidly talks about his decision to promote the Internet over broadcasting as the one and only "common medium" for the United States while he was chairman of the FCC between 1994 and 1997. And he said the FCC National Broadband Plan to be released next week will be the clumination of that policy and the beginning of the end of the broadcasting era.
Hundt Comes Clean: Internet Trumps TV
If you are in the broadcasting business, particularly as a station owner or top manager, you must set aside an hour today and click on this link. [Editor’s note: After this column was posted last Friday morning (March 12), the video on the Columbia University website became difficult to access and, as of March 16, it is no longer available on the site. This column was updated on March 14 to include additional comments by Hundt that appear in boldface below.]
You will see and hear Reed Hundt give a speech at Columbia University in which he candidly talks about his decision to promote the Internet over broadcasting as the one and only “common medium” for the United States while he was chairman of the FCC between 1994 and 1997, and how his work then will culminate next week when the current FCC under his protégé Julius Genachowski unveils the National Broadband Plan.
“The broadband plan that will be published on March 17 actually will reflect … the end of the era of trying to maintain over-the-air broadcast as the common medium and the beginning of a very detailed, quite substantive, commitment to having broadband, the son of narrowband, be the common medium,” Hundt said in the speech that he describes as a “confession or admission.”
Among other things, he said, the “broadband plan will have in it a specific pathway to shrinking the amount of spectrum that broadcast will be able to use. In all previous eras, the government has expanded the spectrum for broadcast so as to give it a chance to thrive as it moved from analog to digital. Now, it’s going to be moving in reverse.”
Hundt said that his decision to favor broadband over broadcast was made in 1994, when his first days as FCC chairman coincided with the introduction of the Mosaic browser and the emergence of the Internet as a commercial medium.
“We decided … that the Internet ought to be the common medium in the United States and that broadcast should not be,” he says. The “we” includes Blair Levin — who is the principal author of the National Broadband Plan and who was Hundt’s chief of staff — as well as Genachowski, who was a top aide and thinker.
Hundt said the decision was made even though TV broadcasting had ably served the country as the common medium since the year he was born, 1948.
And then he gave several reasons why.
The Internet was “going to be the pathway for the global promulgation of American values and American technology, he said. “A nation that doesn’t believe … that its values are values that ought to be shared and sold, if you will, to other countries, that’s not the United States.
“Second, [the Internet] was fundamentally a richer medium — text and pictures — and that therefore it was going to be an easier and better way for people to have access to information. …”
He also believed the Internet was “certain to be diverse in every conceivable respect and not by dint of regulation — diverse, meaning it would be in every language and every race would be welcome and the content would be … generated by people who … would choose any points of view; and any kind of ownership of the content would be admissible and any form of the content would be possible.”
His embrace of the Internet was also prompted by “an anti-elite impulse.” At its heart, he said, the Internet is a “disintermediating medium as oppose to broadcast that created intermediaries.”
Hundt ran off several ways his FCC promoted the Internet in his day, chief among them the policy of allowing computers to connect to the Internet through telephone lines without incurring extra costs.
“In other words, we stole the value from the telephone network and gave it to … society. When I say we stole it, it was a government rule that produced this outcome.”
At the same time, he said, the FCC tried to suppress broadcasting. “This is a little naughty: We delayed the transition to HDTV and fought a big battle against the whole idea.”
He said he found it “simply astonishing” that the government continued to promote broadcasting by helping it through the last leg of the transition from analog to digital last year by subsidizing converter boxes for consumers. “Those people would have been much better off getting a voucher for broadband Internet subscriptions.”
Hundt also predicts the demise of must carry, which he sees as another “astonishing” pro-broadcasting regulatory artifact, possibly by a ruling of of the Supreme Court.
Hundt said identifying and encouraging a particular medium as the common one was unprecedented in American history. “It has actually been an essential characteristic of media in the United States that we have never had a plan and we have felt that that was in the nature of our democracy and our capitalism to not have a plan.
“It’s kind of interesting to think that we are now imitating China in this particular respect.”
As a service to you, I have pulled out what I felt were Hundt’s salient points from this extraordinary speech, but, again, I encourage you to check out the video. If you want to preserve broadcasting, you have to know what the other guys are thinking. I don’t believe you’ll ever get a better opportunity. While he was chairman, he said, he was afraid to publicly admit the pro-Internet bias of his policies.
Hundt made one particularly disturbing comment in explaining his preference for the Internet. “We also thought the Internet would fundamentally be pro-democracy and that broadcast had become a threat to democracy,” he said without elaboration and without anybody in the room challenging him. I’d like to hear more on that.
According to Hundt, you cannot stop a government from choosing a common medium to be the dominant one for the nation. “It’s going to [choose], because government in any country wants a way to reach everybody. It will encourage it and promote it up to some level.”
I reject that. This is America. We can have two of everything. The question was once put to me: what would you rather have, the best broadcasting system in the world or the best broadband system. My answer: both.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck.You may contact him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]