Greetings from National Broadband Plan, Ohio!

May 15, 2010
By | 4 Comments

When Google announced it would bestow a 1-gigabit fiber network on one or more U.S. communities, the company set off a wave of public enthusiasm, as over 1000 cities competed to attract Google’s largess.  In contrast, when the Federal Communications Commission announced that it wanted to bring 100-megabit broadband to 100 million American homes, it set off merely a sad little ripple of public indifference.  Contrasting the two reactions provides a case study in the politics of popular policymaking.

The public’s response to Google’s plans ranged from delightfully silly stunts to movingly earnest appeals. Most famously, Topeka renamed itself Google, Kansas (and Google, on April 1, honored the effort by renaming itself Topeka for a day), but the variations were rich and creative.  To help their towns compete, mayors in northern states jumped into frozen lakes while mayors in southern states jumped into shark tanks. An Oregon microbrewery produced a “Gigabit IPA” for the occasion, and citizens in Greenville, SC gathered in a park to spell out “Google” in light sticks:

Google’s YouTube became a rich repository of these appeals.  Bellingham’s vision of community was genuinely touching, while Fresno’s “I Want My Google Fiber” rap was simply awesome.

This competition for Googlish affections might be dismissed as an especially theatrical “politics of supplication,” a demeaning beg-a-thon in which the fame whores of reality TV meet the eternal desire to get something for nothing.  After all, these campaigns have little to do with policy as understood by the official regulatory apparatus.  They are trivial diversions to the “real” work done in Washington.

But what if we take these Google Fiber campaigns seriously as a kind of popular policymaking?  They reveal what people can do when asked to imagine themselves as empowered stakeholders in policy decisions. In articulating why their communities deserve the fiber, citizens were required to identify local needs and construct local civic identities, assess the impact of infrastructure options and organize coordinated responses.  In other words, they had to become policymakers.

And unlike what writers on localism often tell us, this grassroots policymaking was not restricted to local elites; the campaigns were truly popular in participation, as even the sample above begins to demonstrate.

In contrast, how should we assess the National Broadband Plan?  Instead of calling for popular policy production, the NBP was an invitation for insider political posturing.  Instead of inspiring rap videos, it inspired … comments.  Lots of comments. The Commission boasts of 23,000 comments on its public notices, 1,500 comments to its blog, etc.  And check out this inspiring statement:  “Public comment on the plan does not end here. … The public will continue to have opportunities [to comment] all along this path.”  Hoorah, more comments!

If we want Americans to think creatively about media policy in a networked society, perhaps the place to start is the difference between wonks posting blog comments and mayors swimming with sharks.  I want more of the latter.

The FCC means well, and this particular commission grasps the need for public involvement  better than previous ones.  But there’s a structural imbalance built into the process, a divide that makes decreasing sense between policymakers and the “policymade,” i.e. those citizens whose lives will be shaped by compromises devised elsewhere.  The FCC seems only able to imagine the public as Providers of Comments, all of which will be politely considered until, at the end of the day, they write the rules.  The FCC is saying, “Your call is very important to us.”  Go ahead and leave your message at the beep; in the meantime, we all know that Julius Genachowski picks up when Ivan Seidenberg rings.

What alternative roles might official policymakers imagine for the public?  Put another way, what might the politics of popular policymaking prove to be?  They must be distinct from the politics of “capture,” of officialness, and of insiderdom.  They must build on–not remain loftily above–the public’s creative energy, competitive spirit, and taste for fun. Google can provide a model here:  the FCC has to choose those first 100 million homes somehow, and if officials can re-imagine popular policymaking in the process, they might shift not just the tone but the outcomes of policy debates. After all, when the public doesn’t bother commenting, but simply acts, the official policy world gets nervous, and making powerful incumbents nervous is always in the public interest.


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4 Responses to “ Greetings from National Broadband Plan, Ohio! ”

  1. Tim Anderson on May 15, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    Nice post! Really got me thinking, so let me share a couple of issues here. The first is that Google is a brand everyone interacts with on a daily basis. Googling is a productive and done every day. When Google says they are giving something out, people have positive associations. It’s also why I think the popular policy making analogy you use to connect Google with the FCC only goes so far. Google doesn’t establish national policy, they establish ad hoc internal policies that allow them to build things. Because they have wide breadth on company policy they can be innovative and leverage their positive associations to get people all excited

    What does the FCC have? In the public’s mind they are the people who drove Howard Stern off the airwaves, seem responsible for letting terrestial radio to go to pot, and want to fine people for Janet Jackson’s wardrobe incident. Because the FCC is a national regulator that does not build initiatives and products, not only are their hands tied but the public doesn’t trust you that much when you say they want your comments after a history of fining their favorite performers into a paid service.

    So what to do? While many people would like to make policy “sexy” via new media thinktanks, see McChesney, et. al., how about the FCC run a campaign that essentially says, “South Korea has a much better internet and Finland thinks internet access is a human right, why don’t we?” It’s a national body perhaps it ought to invoke the one sexy rhetorical element in a regulator’s arsenal: nationalism.

    Just a thought.

  2. Cynthia Meyers on May 16, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    Great points! I wonder if this contrast you describe so vividly could also be used as an argument to let the market do the work, regulators just stand back and watch!

    Google is a free agent, so to speak, in that it is accountable mostly to its markets. Google also likes to claim that its innovations are all about the user experience–whatever the R&D costs. The FCC, on the other hand, is about as far from a free agent as an institution could be! How could it ever hope to innovate or be flexible or creative? The FCC has to justify its actions not so much to users (all of us) as it does to its constituencies of powerful political and industrial institutions. Could that be where things tend to get bogged down, innovation-wise? Couldn’t an anti-regulation proponent take this example as another piece of evidence that government regulators by definition cannot innovate or engage the publics and markets?

    Will be interesting to see how deep and far the “new” FCC can rethink its role. I like that the Obama administration is full of folks (like Cass Sunstein) who don’t know for sure how well regulation works but would like to keep trying to figure out something new that doesn’t fall into the old traps. Allowing YouTube video embeds on FCC comment pages might be a step in the right direction!

  3. Bill Kirkpatrick on May 16, 2010 at 4:00 PM

    Thanks for the great comments. I love the idea that nationalism is the closest thing regulators get to sexy, and wonder how that could be put to use. Maybe name a sister city in S. Korea or Finland for every U.S. town to keep up with, using a combo of nationalism and shame and competition to get Americans invested in the NBP? Who knows? Obviously I don’t have answers or I would have put them in the post.

    But Cynthia’s point that the FCC is trapped in its role really is the point, and I suppose my post’s real message is that the FCC can begin breaking out of this role only when it begins to truly share power with the public. Treating the public as “consumer” or “citizen” or “commenter” is not just laziness or habit–these tropes are in fact among the ways that the FCC has historically _avoided_ sharing power with the public. Maybe treating them as “policymakers” who can provide an energetic and creative third force is, in the networked age, finally a realizable ambition.

  4. Danny Kimball on May 17, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    Thanks for a really great post, Bill. What you point out here– that Google seems to be doing a better job of broadband policymaking than the FCC– makes a lot of sense with Google’s role as what Siva Vaidhyanathan has referred to as a kind of government of the internet. When they announced the fiber network plan, I mentioned here on Antenna that Google seems to be a kind of benevolent dictator and here I think you’re right that they actually seem to take seriously the involvement of ‘their citizens.’

    Also, I wonder what all of you make of net neutrality in light of this– how is this movement working as a form of “popular policymaking?” What was not that long ago a pretty wonky issue has in the last few years gotten a good deal of genuine grassroots support (plus no small amount of help from Google, of course…) and now might actually end up making some real headway as policy. What’s your take on it?