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Words from Charlie - Foreword to the 2016 Conference on Communications Policy Report

In the past eight years, the telecommunications field has experienced a number of changes that have shaped the way consumers access and interact with technologies. During that time, the Obama Administration has sought to increase investment, build critical infrastructure, increase access to high-speed Internet connectivity, promote competition, expand access to spectrum, develop policies to safeguard consumers and leverage the Internet to promote other areas of public policy such as education, healthcare and democracy. As the next Administration takes power, it is unclear how it will design policies in these same areas.

On August 14-17, 2016, key decision makers from the telecommunications and information fields met in Aspen, Colorado at the 2016 Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy to explore areas where the next Administration should focus its efforts concerning communication policy. Essentially, it was time to reevaluate the National Broadband Plan and other related policies, whichever candidate was to win the Presidency.

After hearing a keynote talk from the sitting Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Conference participants compared the current communications landscape with the foreseeable future of the digital and broadband environment of 2020. They then considered contrasting approaches (Democratic and Republican) as to how governments have and should maximize the public interest in addressing the pressing communications issues of the day. Next, participants discussed some of the economic and technological events that could occur in the near future and how the next Administration might deal with these issues. Finally, the group suggested various strategies and action steps that the new Administration could take to promote the public interest in the coming four to eight years.

Recommendations include:

RECOMMENDATION 1. Promoting Inclusion and Expanding Opportunities. Recognizing that there are a number of Americans who do not have Internet service or choose not to be connected, the Aspen conference participants recommended three types of actions to overcome the persistent digital divide: expand access, address the problem of affordability, and spur adoption and use of broadband. This includes addressing the problem of inadequate investment in rural broadband by developing a “21st Century Infrastructure Bank” that could leverage funds currently raised for the Universal Service Fund to invest towards accelerating and expanding the deployment of communications infrastructure. Participants also called for improved marketing efforts for programs provided by major telecom providers that offer discount broadband access for low-income consumers.

RECOMMENDATION 2. Supporting Innovation and Infrastructure. Participants made specific recommendations in this area recognizing the need for the creation of more jobs, the importance of capturing lost opportunity costs of not making necessary infrastructure investments, and to solidify the U.S. as a global communications and technology leader. Recommendations included encouraging public/private collaborations, providing tax incentives for investments in infrastructure, continued efforts to provide additional spectrum, and the need for the U.S. government to protect innovation from international threats by developing a new White House Directorate of Trade and Competitiveness.

RECOMMENDATION 3. Building a Trust Environment. The final set of recommendations focused on addressing threats to cybersecurity and privacy. Recommendations included the development of an UL-like rating system for digital devices, software and networks that is easy to understand for consumers. Furthermore, the group recommended a blue-ribbon public-private group to understand what is happening in the field, identify gaps and recommend improvements for security. Participants also called for a unitary framework for privacy protection that is both comprehensive and comprehensible.

As in all of our Communications and Society Program roundtables, the rapporteur, in this case, Richard Adler, aims to make the issues accessible to the lay reader and reflect the insights and recommendations of the participants at the conference. The group did not take votes and many of the recommendations stemmed from individual working groups that met during the Roundtable. Accordingly, not every recommendation or statement reflects the views of all attendees or their employers rather they are the rapporteur’s view of the general sense of the group.

I would like to acknowledge and thank the entities represented in this conference who have also contributed to the Communications and Society Program. They are AT&T, Charter, Cisco Systems, Comcast, Dodge and Cox, Emmis, Google, Intel Corporation, Ligado Networks, Microsoft, Netflix, New Street Research, Nielsen, T-Mobile USA, Vanu, Inc., Verizon, and The Walt Disney Company.

I also want to thank FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler for his keynote presentation; Richard Adler, our rapporteur, for his extensive and informative account of the conference discussions; and our participants for their contributions to these complicated topics. Finally, I want to thank Dominique Harrison, Project Manager, for producing the conference and editing this report.

Charles M. Firestone
Executive Director
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute
Washington, D.C.
January 2017

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