By Kathy Kemper – 03/25/10 01:50 PM ET
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) submitted its first-ever National Broadband Plan to Congress. It’s a big step toward bringing the United States up to speed with other advanced nations in broadband adoption and use. Recognizing the growing role of high-speed Internet access in the United States’ communications infrastructure, the plan outlines a new and ambitious vision for broadband over the next 10 years.
Among other recommendations, the plan proposes subsidizing Internet broadband providers that serve rural areas, auctioning broadcast spectrum in order to make room for mobile Internet devices and funding a nationwide wireless public safety network to help different authorities coordinate an effective response to national disasters, terrorist attacks and other public emergencies.
In this Q&A, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski explains why the United States needs a new, comprehensive approach to broadband, as the Senate Commerce Committee convenes to review the plan his organization has submitted.
What do you hope to accomplish with the National Broadband Plan?
Broadband is the indispensable infrastructure of the digital age — the 21st century equivalent of what canals, railroads, highways, the telephone, and electricity were for previous generations. Through broadband, the United States can begin to lay the foundation for long-term economic growth, investment, and enduring job creation by ensuring that this nation has a robust and world-class infrastructure.
Multiple studies all tell us the same thing — even modest increases in broadband adoption can yield hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The title of one recent op-ed written by the CEO of a major American technology company said it well: “Fix the bridges, but don’t forget broadband.” We hope the plan will serve as a call to action and roadmap for creating world-leading broadband networks.
You’ve called broadband “the great infrastructure challenge of our times.” Why is it so important we address this challenge?
First, broadband is essential to our global competitiveness — and our ability to create jobs and lead the world in innovation in the 21st century. Second, broadband is essential for opportunity in America — for all Americans, from all communities and backgrounds, living in rural towns, inner cities, or in between. And, third, broadband is essential to solving so many of the challenges facing our nation — including education, healthcare, energy and public safety.
Why do we need a plan?
We need a strategic plan for broadband in America, because, notwithstanding the many exciting things happening here around wired and wireless broadband, our country is not where it should be.
The U.S. is lagging globally in broadband adoption and speeds; certain communities within the U.S. are lagging; and the costs of digital exclusion grow higher every day as vital services are increasingly moving online.
One study of particular concern ranks the U.S. 6th out of 40 countries studied in innovative competitiveness — and 40th out of the 40 in “the rate of change in innovative capacity.” The first of those rankings is enough of a concern. That last-place statistic is the canary in the coal mine.
What are some of the key goals of the National Broadband Plan?
The plan sets ambitious but achievable goals, including 1-gigabit connections to every community; affordable 100 megabits broadband to 100 million households; and raising adoption from 65 percent to 90 percent, heading to 100 percent. The plan also commits the United States to global leadership in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.
If global leadership in mobile broadband is a goal, how does the plan address what you have called “a looming spectrum crisis”?
With the explosion in mobile data consumption fueled by smartphones, there is not enough spectrum available to sustain current growth. If enacted, the National Broadband Plan will free up 500 megahertz of spectrum over the next decade, of which 300 MHz will be made available for mobile within the next five years.
We propose doing so through our proposed “incentive auctions,” which would permit existing spectrum licensees, such as television broadcasters in spectrum-starved markets, to voluntarily relinquish spectrum in exchange for a share of auction proceeds, and allow spectrum sharing and other spectrum efficiency measures. This market-based mechanism will enable spectrum intended for the commercial marketplace to flow to the uses the market values most.
The plan also recommends that the FCC, within the next ten years, free up a new, nationwide band of spectrum for unlicensed use. Unlicensed spectrum has been a proven test-bed for emerging competition, injecting new investment and innovation into the marketplace, and spawning new services and devices from Bluetooth to WiFi technology.
How will the plan affect consumers?
The plan contains a number of provisions to make affordable broadband more available to consumers in underserved communities like rural America. All consumers should benefit from faster broadband, which will fuel the development of exciting new applications we can scarcely imagine.
The plan also calls for greater transparency from communications companies to help consumers make more informed decisions. And finally, there are recommendations to use broadband to modernize government — improving service delivery while making government more open, efficient, and accessible.
What does the plan do to connect children and keep them safe online?
First, the plan will recommend modernizing the Universal Service Fund so that it transitions over ten years to support broadband instead of plain old telephone service. This proposal will make broadband more affordable to low-income families and help millions of kids all over the country get connected at home. Second, we will work to make sure that every child is digitally literate and can benefit from digital learning.
Finally, we will keep our children safe by marshaling resources across the federal government to focus on online safety. The FCC is already working with the Department of Education and the Federal Trade Commission on a project called Onguard Online, which has published a guide for parents on how to talk to their kids about online safety.
Now that the plan has been submitted, what’s next for the FCC and the plan?
Submitting the plan was more of a beginning than an end. As the Executive Director of the agency’s broadband effort, Blair Levin, said: “This plan is in beta and always will be.”
There is an enormous amount of work to be done. Pilot projects to launch, more to learn, measurements and course corrections to be made along the way. That is why this plan is a strategic plan — a blueprint to be reviewed and revised in light of experience and growing knowledge. Now is the time to act and invest in our nation’s future by bringing the power and promise of broadband to all Americans.