Mar 15

Believe In Broadband: A Commentary by Michael K. Powell


Believe In Broadband
Michael K. Powell,

The press will soon be filled with stories about the National Broadband Plan, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will release on March 16. The Washington beltway is abuzz over the details, as are the tech titans of Silicon Valley. I suspect, however, that most Americans are scarcely aware of the effort and when they learn about it are likely to ask, “Why do we need a National Broadband Plan?” Fair question.

Most of us are aware of the relentless march of technology and the gadgetry that proliferates in its wake–iPhones, Xboxes, Wi-Fi routers, Kindles and such. And most Americans use the Internet in their daily lives to inform, entertain, socialize or communicate. Broadband providers have plowed big sums of money into building faster connections that enable celebrated Web content and services. The market for these things seems healthy enough, so what does a National Broadband Plan add of significance?

The short answer is that broadband is the indispensable foundation on which America’s future rests. America enjoyed a glorious run in the Industrial Age. Its factories, its blessings of natural resources and the hardworking ingenuity of its people made us an industrial power. Our place in the Information Age, however, is not assured. As a nation, we seem unprepared for the changes–our high school dropout rate alone is cause for alarm in a knowledge economy. If we hope to compete globally and bring more jobs and prosperity to our citizens, we must get our people connected, digitally literate and online. In a nutshell, the benefits to our society are so great that broadband must be a priority of national policy. A good broadband plan will plant that flag.

Moving the nation forward on broadband more forcefully requires better understanding of the interdependent elements that contribute to a high-value user experience. Web companies produce incredible innovations, but they would have no value at all in the absence of high-quality broadband connections provided by broadband companies to reach individuals and business. Too often different vantage points among industry and political stakeholders cause misunderstanding, distrust and conflict rather than cooperation and healthy competition. Articulating common goals and fairly describing the interconnectedness of the digital ecosystem can create a stronger, more cooperative framework for positive action.

As governments awaken to the importance of broadband, they are considering various policies as well as public investment to advance deployment and adoption. Local, state and federal government have all staked their claims, but given that the Internet knows no boundaries it is important to harmonize government regulation. A broadband plan will allow governments to see the issue more holistically and intelligently align different efforts and resources across jurisdictions. The same can be said of community groups looking to serve the information needs of their communities.

To realize the full power of broadband, it must be a key component of solving our national challenges. The vision of using electronic health records to improve health care, smart grids to increase energy efficiency or distance-learning resources to improve education needs a ubiquitous broadband platform if we hope to turn vision into reality. Pulling together these different efforts to share learning, best practices and resources is another advantage of having a national plan.

The National Broadband Plan, however, should be more than a codification of national commitment. The FCC should set out specific initiatives that will accelerate the country’s efforts.

First, the FCC should put a spotlight on policies that increase adoption. According to recent FCC estimates, one-third of adults in the U.S. do not subscribe to broadband. Broadband adoption tends to be significantly lower for African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as lower-income Americans. In order for the nation to fully benefit from broadband–individually and collectively–we need all Americans online. Increasing adoption is the most significant factor in improving our broadband position and closing the digital divide.

Additionally, the FCC must tackle the challenges of deploying broadband in areas that have proven uneconomical to serve. Five percent of the country currently has no broadband. The universal service fund has historically been a tool to address such problems. If substantially reformed and carefully designed, shifting the focus of the program to broadband may help bring critical broadband services to these difficult to serve communities.

A robust broadband ecosystem includes wireless infrastructure to complement wired broadband. Consumers are increasingly demanding wireless broadband service to realize the promise of having information access anytime and anywhere. Given that the government controls the critical resource for quality wireless service–spectrum–this is an area rightfully requiring government leadership.

Finally, the FCC must embrace the inescapable conclusion that private investment will continue to bear the heaviest load in meeting our national objectives. The FCC has noted the price tag associated with increasing deployment to more communities and deploying substantially faster Internet infrastructure is between $20 billion and $300 billion. The FCC must maintain a stable regulatory environment without substantial uncertainty and continue its longstanding policy of only lightly regulating the Internet if it hopes to keep the dollars flowing to expand broadband access.

For many, the prosperity of the Industrial Era delivered the “American Dream”–the promise of a better, richer and happier life. In the Information Age we must empower all Americans with the tools they need to make their own dreams come true. Broadband makes that possible.

Michael K. Powell is former FCC chairman and honorary co-chair of Broadband for America (BfA).

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