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FCC Releases its National Broadband Plan: Why Does it Matter?

Man, I thought that the story about a huge percentage of America's waterways no longer being protected was big.  But the bloggers (and conventional media, too) have really jumped all over the FCC releasing its National Broadband Plan.

The problem

America has a broadband problem.  Make that problems.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) calls broadband "the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century."  (I don't know about that - crumbling bridges that kill people and burst sewer pipes that leak sewage into rivers seem like a bigger deal.  But I agree that broadband is important.)

The U.S. has made big strides in developing its high-speed telecommunications infrastructure: the number of Americans who have broadband at home has grown from 8 million in 2000 to nearly 200 million last year.

But, according to some, it's not enough.

For one, America's average download speeds of 4 megabits per second (Mbps) ranks 15th in the world - behind Japan, France, Korea, Sweden (and 10 others).  4 Mbps is probably not fast enough to share large files, stream video, play online games, engage in remote education, telecommute, or do telemedicine (even basic remote diagnosis and medical file sharing).

What's more, 35% of Americans (100 million people) don't get high-speed Internet at home.  The two biggest reasons why these "non-adopters" don't have broadband at home: cost (too high) and digital literacy (lack of). 

Then 4% of Americans don't have broadband access at all.  These are folks, primarily, in rural areas.  They're unserved mainly because the enormous fixed costs associated with providing high-speed Internet require a large number of subscribers to pay for the provider's investment.  Sparsely populated areas without the requisite number of subscribers have been largely left uncovered.

Why does it matter?

To some, broadband is just about having the ability to download the latest Bourne movie in high definition or join friends around the world for a game of World of Warcraft.  But as a Brookings Institution study illuminates, access to broadband is actually far more important:

  • "Digital infrastructure is vital to long-term economic, social, and civic development. Similar to highways, bridges, and dams, broadband and wireless represent infrastructures that make it possible for businesses to stay connected, innovate, and create jobs."
  •  "A study of 120 nations between 1980 and 2006 undertaken by Qiang (2009b) estimates that each 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration adds 1.3 percent to a high income country's gross domestic product and 1.21 percent for low to middle-income nations."

The FCC explained the importance of broadband telecommunications well:

"Broadband-enabled health information technology (IT) can improve care and lower costs by hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades, yet the United States is behind many advanced countries in the adoption of such technology. Broadband can provide teachers with tools that allow students to learn the same course material in half the time, but there is a dearth of easily accessible digital educational content required for such opportunities. A broadband-enabled Smart Grid could increase energy independence and efficiency, but much of the data required to capture these benefits are inaccessible to consumers, businesses and entrepreneurs. And nearly a decade after 9/11, our first responders still lack a nationwide public safety mobile broadband communications network, even though such a network could improve emergency response and homeland security."

A huge Arizona infrastructure study commissioned by the AIC and conducted by the Seidman Research Institute at ASU yielded similar findings:

  • "Businesses increasingly rely on access to telecommunications infrastructure - particularly, access to high-speed data lines - to complete their business activities. Examples abound: from the lettuce farmer in Yuma who supplies Subway to the trauma specialist available to offer remote help to physicians in smaller hospitals across the state."

The solution

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Congress charged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with developing a national broadband policy by March 17, 2010.  Specifically, legislators asked the FCC to outline telecommunications policies that would "advance consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth, and other national purposes."

Yesterday, the FCC unveiled its 377-page plan, titled "Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan."  Some of the highlights:

  • Government can influence the broadband ecosystem in four ways:
    1. Design policies to ensure robust competition and, as a result maximize consumer welfare, innovation and investment.
    2. Ensure efficient allocation and management of assets government controls or influences, such as spectrum, poles, and rights-of-way, to encourage network upgrades and competitive entry.
    3. Reform current universal service mechanisms to support deployment of broadband and voice in high-cost areas; and ensure that low-income Americans can afford broadband; and in addition, support efforts to boost adoption and utilization.
    4. Reform laws, policies, standards and incentives to maximize the benefits of broadband in sectors government influences significantly, such as public education, health care and government operations.
  • In addition to the recommendations above, the plan recommends that the country adopt and track the following six goals to serve as a compass over the next decade.
    1. Goal No. 1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.
    2. Goal No. 2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.
    3. Goal No. 3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
    4. Goal No. 4: Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.
    5. Goal No. 5: To ensure the safety of the American people, every first responder should have access to a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband public safety network.
    6. Goal No. 6: To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption.

Watch a PBS interview with Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the FCC:

So that's the outline of America's broadband problems and the FCC's proposed solutions.  Stay tuned on Thursday for a discussion of how to pay for it all.  (Teaser: the FCC's price tag is a whopping $350 billion.)

Written on Tuesday, 16 March 2010 14:06 by Gary Yaquinto

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