Editor’s note: James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation wrote this piece for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“Dear God! For one solid year they have been sitting there, for one year, doing nothing.” – John Adams, in Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve, from the musical 1776.

WASHINGTON,The FCC began 2002 with a flurry of activity on broadband and telecom competition — initiating five major rulemakings between December and March. These ranged from a review of its rules on forced telecom unbundling to rulemakings on how and whether to regulate cable modem and DSL service. Hopes were high — it looked like Michael Powell was going to live up to his high expectations. Like his father, it looked like Powell was bent on regime change — in this case an end to the misguided regulatory regime that was hobbling broadband growth.

The rulemakings, however, were still largely proposals. With the exception of a decision to classify cable modems as a (presumably less-regulated) information service, the FCC had only come out with options for reform, in some cases rather vague ones. But, the Commission made all sorts of noises about moving quickly to finalize the actions. No more interminable delays. No more infinite elasticity of process. The agency had learned the lesson of the digital revolution — the need to move quickly was recognized. Commissioner Kevin Martin was the clearest: saying the agency should act by the end of the year (not exactly Internet-time, but good for the chronologically-challenged FCC).

What changed?

It was not to be. The calendar says December, the snows are piling up in Washington, and the FCC has completed a grand total of zero of its reforms. Nada. Nichts.

What happened? Part of the answer may be the lack of support Powell got from the Bush Administration. Sure, after much pushing, the President made a statement generally mentioning broadband regulation, and offering generic support for the FCC’s efforts. Better than nothing, but still a little less than textbook leadership. Sort of like standing behind a rock and yelling “go get ’em — I’ll be right behind you.”

(The Administration’s reticence to engage on the issue is reportedly based on political considerations — a reluctance to upset industry opponents of reform. Still, given the fall of WorldCom and decline of the CLECs, that political calculus may already be outdated.)

No excuse

But the Administration’s absence doesn’t excuse the FCC’s failure. It’s possible that there simply wasn’t a clear enough consensus among members to produce a result. That seems unlikely though, given the public statements of the members. Moreover, a determined leadership could have forged a consensus.

The most depressing prospect is that broadband reform, despite its import, fell victim to other matters and general drift, and lack of a focused effort to get the job done. In other words, FCC disease. Perhaps the FCC hasn’t learned the lesson of Internet time after all, or worse, is unable to adapt to it.

So what comes next? Many observers are still expecting FCC action to finally come early next year. One can always hope. And if nothing happens then, expect Capitol Hill to start making rattling sounds. The House leadership is pro-reform, and should start increasing the pressure. In the Senate, returning Commerce chair John McCain has long been pro-deregulation, and is not apt to sit on the sidelines.

Still, expectations should be capped: only the most Pollyannaish believe that Congress could actually pass a broadband bill. And only the most foolhardy think it could pass a sensible one. In the end, it’s still the FCC that matters. The question is: will 2003 bring less twiddle, and more resolve?

CEI: www.cei.org