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Casting a Wider Internet

Interviewee: Yochai Benkler, Faculty Co-Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard
Interviewer: Roya Wolverson, Staff Writer, CFR.org
January 21, 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama has made universal access to high-speed Internet central to his technology agenda. In response, some policymakers, including the U.S. Justice Department, are pressing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to provide more spectrum for wireless high-speed Internet service to compete with broadband service, which they say would make accessing the Internet more affordable.

Yochai Benkler, faculty co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says that wireless initiatives are important, but the FCC needs to concentrate more on giving new Internet providers access to existing infrastructure laid down by established providers. Otherwise, continued reliance on only one or two U.S. Internet providers will hamper U.S. economic competitiveness and innovation, Benkler says, who advised the FCC on revising its Internet policy.

The United States already lags behind competitors such as Japan and France that offer Internet consumers faster speeds and lower prices because of their more competitive regulatory structures, he says. Benkler doubts there is "political will" to confront the need to comprehensively restructure the U.S. broadband market. As a result, East Asian and European small businesses and entrepreneurs will benefit sooner from innovative, data-intensive technologies such as three-dimensional teleconferencing. The United States will also find it harder to implement environmental initiatives such as smart-grid technology and certain healthcare reforms, Benkler says.

Benkler adds that he is less concerned with so-called "net neutrality" rules than some technology consumers and media companies. Once the FCC addresses the issue of competition and infrastructure access, Internet providers will find it harder to discriminate against content providers as a way to drive profits. "If one provider decides to discriminate," he says, then "consumers can always go to another."

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