The future of the country is broadband, not broadcast TV, and we have fallen behind in providing nationwide access.
So believes the Federal Communications Commission, which on Monday stated its case in a 359-page, 10-year plan to Congress. “While broadband adoption has grown steadily, it is still far from universal,” the FCC said. “It lags considerably among certain demographic groups, including the poor, the elderly, some racial and ethnic groups and ethnic minorities, those who live in rural areas and those with disabilities.”
The FCC plan anticipates a country where the internet is the main way to communicate electronically -- and consumers without high-speed access are missing a vital link to news, information and tools needed to be full citizens.
It also anticipates that as other countries continue to ramp up connection speeds, America is going to start falling further behind without significant actions by Congress and regulators to provide more broadband bandwidth.
The report sets a goal of vastly increasing the average speed of available internet connections within five years and providing 100 million homes download speeds of 100 megabytes a second within 10 years.
It also calls for rolling out affordable internet access to the one-third of Americans who are currently blacked out.
The report, which Congress requested, represents the biggest policy move yet of the FCC under Chairman Julius Genachowski. It outlines a series of recommendations to Congress, federal agencies and to the FCC itself. At a briefing Monday, FCC officials said the agency would move quickly to launch multiple proceedings to alter its rules to enable some of the changes.
Many of the recommendations require legislation or separate regulatory action and some could be controversial.
Genachowski in a statement called the plan “a 21st century roadmap to spur economic growth and investment, create jobs, educate our children, protect our citizens and engage in our democracy.”
“It’s an action plan, and action is necessary to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, and harness the power of broadband to help address so many vital national issues,” he said in the statement.
The report also said that the challenge is not only about technology. “Millions of Americans lack the skills necessary to use the internet.”
Among the recommendations:
-- Free up additional broadcast spectrum for internet services, some by getting TV stations to turn over unused spectrum and some by other means.
-- Create a Digital Literacy Corps and a National Digital Literacy Program.
-- Clarify rules on online privacy.
-- Create a new tier of free or low-cost wireless broadband that would be supported by advertising. Consumers could still buy wifi and phone plans, but the free advertising supported tier would be for consumers who couldn’t afford the other plans.
-- Alter rules for cable set top boxes to ensure consumers can buy boxes independently at competitive prices.
-- Start using a universal service fund that was originally created to guarantee low income residents can get telephone service to help low income residents get internet service.
The FCC is wet to formally approve the plan at its monthly meeting on Tuesday.
Public interest groups, telecom companies and legislators praised the report, even as they all said it opens long battles ahead.
“The commission has done a superb job in meeting the challenge set forth by the Congress one year ago that a national plan to achieve universal broadband access be developed,” said Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Virg., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s communications panel. “I look forward to working with FCC Chairman Genachowski to enact legislation which will carry forward the commission’s plan.”
Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, called the plan “a significant first step in the right direction.”
Some Republicans, on the other hand, expressed concerns that the FCC in pushing broadband could be stepping into territory best left up to private industry, while broadcasting groups expressed their concerns about the FCC’s plans suggestion that some of the additional spectrum needed for the internet come from stations’ allocation.