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Nortel chief: U.S. needs new broadband vision

By , IDG News Service
August 23, 2005 05:38 PM ET

IDG News Service - 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."

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