Saturday, September 10, 2005 | Telecommunications Utopia or “Teletopia” – a term first coined by the Japanese Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to describe what 21st Century Japan would look like when its new broadband communications infrastructure was in place – was launched almost 25 years ago. Teletopia – that bold new information Mecca – has yet to materialize in Japan, the U.S. or any other nation.

Unlike Japan’s approach, which was tantamount to a huge public works project, the underlying premise of Wall Street money managers, telecom executives and regulators alike was the same: If the regulators would open the gates and the capital markets to their pocketbooks, within a relatively short time, we would build a new broadband future ushering in a cornucopia of new-age information products and services.

Since 1980, the Federal Communications Commission, and to a certain extent the Congress, has certainly tried to find ways for monopoly and competition to coexist, and allow the Bell System operating companies to participate in many ways in the development of the new information infrastructure and its products and services.

Today, almost a decade after President Clinton promised “lower prices, better quality and greater choices in telephone and cable services,” prices are continuing to escalate, genuine choices have been narrowed, and service quality has reached an abysmal low. At the local level, as communities around the world begin to sketch out the first drafts of their digital future, U.S. cities are at a loss as to how to proceed.

Most of the major telecommunications providers would prefer to keep it that way. Indeed, the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 was written largely by the telecommunications companies themselves with very little public support or involvement from non-telecom firms, state or local municipalities or the general public.

Not surprisingly, state legislatures around the country are now lobbied daily for legislation to prohibit any municipality from even entertaining such a notion. Electric, gas and water utilities, each of which is also in a position to provide the new broadband telecommunications infrastructures, are also being targeted with laws that would bar their entry into the telecommunications business in any manner.

In the long view of history, however, more businesses large and small – increasingly dependent upon the ubiquitous broadband telecommunications networks – will atrophy or die. In the long view, consumers will grow more weary and wary of our Internet future. The Teletopia field of dreams of e-commerce, e-government, e-health and other visions of America in an information economy will wither away as well.

To succeed and survive in the new economy, America – its institutions public and private, large and small, and the growing number of entrepreneurs and consumers alike throughout this country – must involve themselves in the public policy process and in the public arena, which will help shape telecommunications policy in the 21st Century.

Those who care can do several things. First, begin the call for new federal legislation. The new Martin Federal Communications Commission and Bush Administration have heard from business and consumer groups alike that the 1996 Act was born in an analog age.

Over five years ago, Adam B. Thierer, director of Telecommunication Studies and a member of the Bush/Cheney transition team, wrote that: “The Telecom Act with its backward-looking focus on correcting the market problems of a bygone era has been a failure. Instead of thoroughly clearing out the regulatory deadwood of the past, legislators and regulators have engaged in an effort to rework regulatory paradigms that were outmoded decades ago.”

Surely there is need for new telecommunications reform in which everyone has a stake. Such reform should not move forward, however, without the real stakeholders, the users and consumers of telecommunications, actively involved.

John M. Eger is the Van Deerlin chair of Communication and Public Policy and executive director of the International Center for Communications at SDSU.

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