Rivals Google, Comcast join to back Wharton forum

Comcast Corp. and Google Inc. are rivals on one of the big Washington lobby fights of our day: whether Internet access ought to be sold at flat per-customer fees, which favors Google and other heavy users, as President Obama wants; or whether Comcast and other companies that sell Internet access to consumers should be free to charge what their customers are willing to pay for traffic.

But Comcast and Google have many other interests in common. And they're joining as sponsors of Supernova Forum 2010, the ninth yearly business-college-government conference led by FCC staffer-turned-Wharton legal-studies professor Kevin Werbach, which will be held at Wharton on July 29 and 30.

Google lobbyist Rick Whitt and David Cohen, the public face of Comcast, are among the planned speakers, along with New York University professor and BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis, FCC regulator-turned-Wall Street telecom analyst Rebecca Arbogast, Obama's "Open Government Initiative" chief Beth Noveck, First Round Capital partner Josh Kopelman, and Microsoft and Harvard research Danah Boyd.

"I'd like to think that Comcast, Google and our other sponsors appreciate the value of brinigng together different perspectives," Werbach told me. "It's not an advocacy forum; it's an event to promote insights and better understanding of important topics."

It's the first time in the event's nine-year history the event has left the San Francisco Bay area, where it was live-blogged by Gawker.com's Valleywag site and other Silicon Valley media. Last year's conference featured Apple and closed-platforms critic Jonathan Zittrain, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, among many others.

He's hoping for heavier attendance from Northeast and mid-Atlantic start-up companies, as well as FCC officials and Congressional aides. "I was responsible for Internet policy at the FCC in the mid-1990s," and he later served on Obama's transition team, picking appointees, "so I have relationships with many people in this Administration."

In a recent speech at Columbia University, Werbach's old boss, ex-FCC chairman Reed Hundt, said he "stole" the Internet from Verizon, AT&T and other phone companies by pushing policies that promote lower-cost Internet service at the expense of broadcast television.

"Reed is a colorful character, but he was also a tremendous FCC chairman," Werbach told me. "We accomplished a lot in those years, including laying the groundwork to allow the growth of the Internet." While current FCC chair Julius Genachowski (he also worked for Hundt) has been at earlier Supernova forums, he won't make this year's, even though movign it to Philly  "makes it possible for more of the Obama Administration officials I know to come from DC."

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