Nortel chief: U.S. needs new broadband vision

The U.S. government lacks a broad vision for broadband and wireless technologies and is losing ground as countries like South Korea and India push new technologies from the highest level of government, the chief executive of Nortel said Tuesday.

Bill Owens, a former U.S. Navy admiral, stopped short of advocating an expansive new U.S. government policy while speaking at the Aspen Summit, sponsored by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank that advocates free-market approaches over government regulations. But he did question whether U.S. government leaders understand technology issues as well as their counterparts in other countries with fast-growing broadband services.

Owens challenged broadband providers to move toward 20-megabit connections across the U.S. in order to keep up with Internet improvements in other countries. "I just wonder who in the United States government is at a level where they're seeing that vision ... where they must do something to look into the future," he said. "I wonder if the lawmakers and the cabinet members and the senior people in our government understand how rapidly this is happening, how quickly the world is changing."

Owens didn't offer many concrete proposals, instead raising questions about the U.S. focus on future technologies, although he suggested more telecom regulation should be done at the national level, instead of the state level.

Concerns about broadband adoption in the U.S. aren't new, with the U.S. falling from the 13th place in 2004 to 16th this year in broadband penetration rates, according to the International Telecommunication Union. But Owens told his audience changes in U.S. policy are needed urgently.

He predicted that offshore companies would begin offering VoIP service over mobile phones to U.S. residents for a lower price than most current wireless phone plans within a couple of years, and current U.S. regulations could do little to stop that service from happening.

"So on my mobile phone, I can call you anywhere around the world and do it for $20 a month, and use everybody's networks," he said. "I wonder what that does to the companies who have invested billions of dollars in infrastructure: Our wireline companies, our cable companies, our wireless companies.

"What happens when people start to poach on that investment?" he continued. "I believe we need to take regulatory steps to make certain that we protect our businesses and people who have put money into these networks so that they can get a fair return."

Asked if the U.S. should adopt a government-driven broadband build-out similar to South Korea's, Owens said that may not work in the U.S., where government has less authority to unilaterally move ahead with its policies. "There are great opportunities for us here as we look around the world and take lessons from other countries and realize that we can be a leader of this telecom world," he said. "We shouldn't take the lead from Korea or Japan or India; we should start to have visions of our own."

While Owens and some panelists in a radio spectrum policy discussion criticized the U.S. government for not doing enough to promote new Internet technologies, Michael Gallagher director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NIST) in the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), defended the work done since President George Bush took office in 2001. The Bush administration is working to free up radio spectrum for commercial and unlicensed uses, with an auction of spectrum, scheduled for mid-2006, that would increase mobile wireless spectrum by 45%.

DOC has also worked with Congress to move television stations off spectrum as they transition to digital broadcasts, and the U.S. government has led the world in approving the use of ultra wideband wireless technologies, Gallagher said.

Gallagher also disputed a suggestion that the U.S. government doesn't have a broadband policy, noting that Bush in March 2004 called for universally available broadband across the U.S. by 2007.

Owens didn't address the Bush administration's goal, but he said other countries are already far ahead of the U.S. South Koreans can get 10 channels of television delivered to mobile devices for about $10 a month, he said. Nortel is working with the city government of Taipei to have 90% of the city covered by wireless hotspots by the end of the year.

Despite Bush's call for universal broadband access, telecom providers such as Verizon have raised questions about U.S. cities setting up their own Wi-Fi networks. During the spectrum policy discussion, Link Hoewing, Verizon's assistant vice president for Internet and technology policy, said his company doesn't want to see municipal broadband projects banned, but cities should be careful before tax dollars are spent on Wi-Fi projects when private alternatives exist.

But nearly 300 U.S. cities are either considering or moving ahead with municipal broadband projects, said NIST's Gallagher.

"It's clear that there's a message to the private sector," Gallagher said. "The message is, they want their broadband and will find a cheap way to deploy it. They will do it for themselves if the private sector doesn't do it fast enough."

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