Skip to main content

Editorial: Deaf EarsIn Washington

Around this time of year, the Jimmy Stewart movie that most often comes to mind and to television screens throughout the country is It’s a Wonderful Life. These days, at least inside the Beltway, the Stewart movie that seems most fitting is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a man discouraged to the point of exhaustion when facing down a frustrating political system that hardly seems to be serving the best interests of the public.

We hope that by the time this editorial hits the page, all the legislative loose ends that just happen to involve the long-term future of communications and the short-term futures of many hurting Americans have been wrapped up with a red bow and delivered. But even if there is some partial resolution, this is no way to run a government.

Rather than vote on a stand-alone spectrum auction incentive authority bill, the issue was inserted into last week’s payroll tax package, which combined must-pass measures like extending unemployment benefits with an oil pipeline and a farm dust particulate bill and the legislation that would give broadcasters arguably their best shot at coverage area protections and enough money to make sure that they, and cable and satellite operators, would be compensated for having to move to new channels, and perhaps move and share new channels when their spectrum is reclaimed for wireless broadband.

Then there is the national, interoperable broadband emergency communications network the government has not been able to approve or fund in the more than 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The gambit of trying to push legislation through on the back of must-pass bills—ones whose authority will expire at the end of the year—is a recipe for gridlock and acrimony, which is what we were getting last week.

The FCC, meanwhile, is the lead agency in the Obama administration’s push for broadband deployment and adoption, an effort that is billed as crucial and transformative. Yet with the FCC at four members and potentially down to three at the beginning of next month, the new commission nominees faced a hold in the Senate over the complaints, legitimate or not, of a single senator over an unrelated matter.

As we said, it’s possible that the hold will be lifted and the nominees voted on, and somewhat less likely that the spectrum auction bill will survive in its current form.

But the point is that the broadband future is undeniably important—to cable operators that dominate in the Internet service space; to broadcasters as well, some of which have a plan to help offload wireless broadband traffic if the FCC allows them to remain a viable business; and to all of us Crackberry, iPhone, tablet-dependent media types. Yet the fates of future FCC commissioners and the legislation the FCC says is crucial to broadband’s future—whether that is an oversell or not—were, and may still be, held hostage to typically ugly political fights in an increasingly divisive town.

P.S.: Remember all that talk about toning down the violent rhetoric in Washington after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords? Maybe it’s time for the forces marshaled against online piracy legislation to stop suggesting their opponents would be “Internet killers.”