This is not an easy column to write, because it raises issues that are both awkward and possibly inconsistent with what I have promoted for years. But the issues must be aired, and we need to have a responsible discussion about the dichotomy between economic regulation of telecommunications and policy goals in the same arena. I have always opposed excessive government regulation of the cable industry. On behalf of the industry, I have objected to the micromanagement of our business and the clear protectionism displayed for the incumbents, such as the broadcasters and the telephone companies. Cable, of course, has long been seen as a potential competitor to both – and now that VOIP is finally rolling out for real, that scenario is actually going to play out. There is going to be vigorous competition to deliver voice, video and data. All of that is good. But what is the underlying policy we as a nation are seeking in telecommunications? Well, of course, "competition" is one of those bedrock goals. We now have that. The intentional promotion of satellite to compete with cable in video distribution, the introduction of the digital transition to allow over-the-air broadcasting to improve its delivery, and the like, have made video distribution very actively competitive. Similarly, the advent of new technology, especially the build-out of a broadband infrastructure paid for by the cable industry, has guaranteed competition will be fierce in the areas of data delivery and voice. Another fundamental, however, must be the building and maintenance of that infrastructure. That, in turn, requires sufficient financial incentive to spend the money to build the best systems possible. I think we are successfully meeting that objective now as cable and telephone companies vie to see who can build the infrastructure that can deliver the best, fastest and most reliable telecommunications bundle. So far, so good. But there is a new element. There are, of course, new technologies arriving. They, too, should be allowed to be part of the competitive marketplace. Just as we enter this era of both competition and robust, albeit expensive, infrastructures, however, some governmental entities come along and say they will build what are in essence stripped-down infrastructures to compete with broadband. WiFi or WiMax, assuming they work well (still an open question over longer distances or densely populated and built-up areas), are being proposed as "free" services offered by cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco. Does this make sense? Yes, it would be nice to assure there is no "digital divide" (a notion I have challenged before) – by making sure everyone has access to the new digital technology. But when the government gets in the "business" of competing with private enterprise, and promotes either its own system – one that is not, and cannot be as versatile and robust as the ones just built out, or promotes subsidized systems like broadband over power line, don’t we have to ask whether "more" isn’t becoming "too much?" I know. I cringe even asking that. I sound like a telephone guy of old, railing against any new competitor. But are we risking a situation where there are so many entrants, and the "market" is so fragmented, that there is no longer a sufficient economic base to support the policy goal of a robust, maintained infrastructure? This is not an easy question. I intend to explore it in future columns. I welcome your input.

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