FCC national broadband plan: a vision for the nation

The FCC gets the national broadband plan largely right, pushing private-sector competition while helping hard-to-reach populations.

A national broadband plan for America argues that high-speed Internet service is as vital to America’s economy as electric power. Everyone should have access to it. Everyone should be able to afford it.

As anyone who writes a school report, looks for a job, buys something on eBay, or watches videos on YouTube knows, that’s a pretty easy case to make. The Federal Communications Commission does so in its National Broadband Plan. The hefty document was sent to Congress Tuesday. The question is, how does America go from 200 million broadband users at home to adding another 100 million (just about everyone) by 2020?

That’s the goal that the FCC sets for the nation, along with a huge jump in Internet speed. Fortunately, the commission understands that the United States got this far mostly through the drive of private-sector innovation and competition. Indeed the distance traveled is astonishing: a decade ago only 8 million Americans had broadband at home.

It looks like the FCC wants to keep riding this horse (clicking this mouse?). It sees its role as ensuring “robust competition” to help lower costs and increase access. One of its suggestions: Free up supply for use by wireless service providers through a voluntary auction of TV spectrum.

Television broadcasters would give up some of their spectrum. But they would also get a share of the auction proceeds. It’s a workable idea, that, the FCC claims, will pay for the overall broadband plan. The report also suggests greater transparency in price and speed so that consumers can become better comparison shoppers of broadband.

But the private sector has not found it cost-effective to connect those who live in hard-to-reach or costly areas, such as rural America and tribal lands. The FCC suggests reconfiguring the Universal Service Fund to support broadband to these areas. The fund, set up in 1997, was originally meant to ensure that poor or isolated Americans get phone service. It’s supported by a fee from telecommunications companies.

Conceptually, the idea works if one accepts that broadband is – or will soon be – as basic a service as the telephone. But the FCC needs to be careful here, because to qualify for that money, broadband may have to be “reclassified” as a telecom service. That would open it up to far more government regulation, and the Internet service providers resist that as an innovation and investment killer.

The FCC report also sees a role for all levels of government in bringing broadband to areas where government is already involved – to healthcare, public education, energy, homeland security. For instance, it proposes that every first responder have access to a nationwide, wireless public safety network; that broadband could lower health costs and improve care through speedy access to medical data and records; that public education can benefit from e-learning and online content.

These steps may indeed benefit the nation, but as America embraces electronic information ever more fully, it must also concern itself with some of the negative spinoffs: cybersecurity threats (think of China’s breach of Google) and privacy issues (such as medical, school, and employment records).

People resist the Internet for all kinds of reasons, not just privacy. Some think they can’t learn the technology. Others doubt its usefulness or object to content.

Ways can be found to address these issues, and the report’s suggestion of a “digital literacy corps” to help teach people how to do that is a good one. A corps could fan out to the elderly, shut-ins, or the poor much the way government offers seminars about Medicare to those reaching retirement age.

Still, government must recognize that not everyone will get on board, and it must not orient itself so much toward electronics that it forgets face-to-face communication – the human touch.

The FCC has a lot of details still to fill in with this report, which received the general support of all of the commissioners in a statement today. Parts of it, industry objects to. Parts of it, Congress will have to approve.

But the commission has done right by providing a goal and a vision for the country. Why should Americans settle for less when, in a country like South Korea, most of its population can receive data at speeds more than 25 times faster than in the US?

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