Collect scores of people in a room, ask them to talk about technology, and what do you get? A meandering experiment in the form of a public hearing that the Federal Communications Commission convened Monday in Pittsburgh.
It would take work to be more vague than the event's official title: "Broadband and the Digital Future." So speakers veered haphazardly between spam, pornography, media ownership, database privacy, computer prices, Net neutrality, mobile provider pricing, bandwidth caps, Webcasting official meetings, and piracy on peer-to-peer networks. And that was just in the last hour.
Because there was no focus, there was no hope for a consensus. Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat whose district includes Pittsburgh, set the tone for the event at Carnegie Mellon University by pitching the city as a "great place to live and work." He boasted that "Lycos started on this campus"--an odd point to emphasize when the company no longer places on ComScore's list of the top 50 Web properties and ranks behind even IRS.gov in popularity.
Cynics might say the field hearing itself was an exercise in political pacification: Doyle is the vice chairman of the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications and the Internet panel, which oversees the FCC.
Marge Krueger, an administrative director for the Communications Workers of America union and an invited speaker, called Doyle "our favorite congressman for working families in Pittsburgh." She said the CWA is in favor of more broadband competition "as long as companies' don't compete on...lower labor costs."
FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, a Republican, used the event to highlight Internet copyright infringement. She warned of the economic consequences of when "the industries and literally the art of this country vanish into thin air by those who misuse the very infrastructure we are discussing today." She slammed anti-copyright activists who are "hiding behind the word 'freedom.'"
Jonathan Adelstein, a Democratic commissioner, said that--referring to children--"parents desperately need and want tools to teach them the safe and healthy use of this technology. They need to have the tools." He didn't mention any of the long list of companies that have been selling precisely those products for a decade.
Some speakers made more serious points. Mark Cavicchia, the founder and CEO of WhereverTV, pointed to Time Warner Cable's relatively small download/upload limit of 5GB per month for certain Internet customers who pay $29.95 monthly. Those who pay $54.90 each month receive a 40GB cap.
This "unreasonable limitation is not just unfair to consumers. It's ludicrous," Cavicchia said. "Broadband providers and their competing content services benefit."
Cavicchia's WhereverTV offers an intriguing product: a sleek $199 black box that lets you watch TV shows beamed over the Internet, with no computer or monthly subscription required. Web users can also tune in. The selection is mixed, offering excellent channels like Britain's Sky News and less useful ones like Vietnam's state propaganda channel Hanoi TV.
Even in its limited form, WhereverTV competes squarely with Time Warner Cable's channel offerings. Cavicchia said that after just 16 minutes of a "full-throttle" connection watching TV, a cable broadband customer can exceed the monthly gigabyte cap, making it an "exorbitant toll."
Dave Farber, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, took aim at broadband companies that open their networks to allow NebuAd to see what their customers are doing. "That is completely obscene and should be stopped," Farber said. "The telephone industry would never allow that."
Audience questions were scattershot. Someone named Steve, who identified himself as affiliated with the Ron Paul Campaign for Liberty, was primarily worried about the "ability of certain corporations such as LexisNexis to build a database on me without informing me that they are doing so." Others took aim at Robert Quinn from AT&T, who said that his employer has the right to impose limits on customers' use of bandwidth as long as there are "discrete tiers that are disclosed to our end user customers" and "clear notice of any meaningful limitations."
A man saying he was part of an advocacy organization for moral and constitutional issues warned of sexual promiscuity, saying children are "growing up that have not been properly socialized because of the ruin of the moral family structure." And the ACLU's Pamela Irwin said that broadband providers' restrictions on users amount to "unconstitutional censorship"--an odd claim, when the text of the First Amendment refers only to governments, not corporations.
One of the best applause lines at the hearing came from the audience member who complained of the United States' broadband penetration rate. He said: "We are the founders of the Internet. We should be No. 1." Given the Internet's rapid growth in India and Asia, soon that claim might seem as bizarre as saying that since the French were the first to fly in an aircraft, they should necessarily have the world's largest fleet of passenger jets.