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FCC Plan Urges Faster, Wider Broadband Internet Access Across U.S.

March 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Federal Communications Commission is presenting a new national broadband plan to Congress, aimed at encouraging companies to expand high-speed and wireless Internet access. Jeffery Brown talks to Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC.
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JEFFREY BROWN: With more and more Americans checking their e-mail, watching movies and TV on fly, and demanding high-speed Internet in their homes and offices, questions and concerns about the nation’s broadband capabilities, networks that move the written, video and voice data, have also grown — one issue, the speed of and increasing strain on existing networks.

According to a 2009 study, the U.S. ranked just 15th in the world in broadband speed — another problem, access and affordability. A recent study by the Federal Communications Commission showed that 4 percent of Americans, mostly in rural areas, still don’t have access to high-speed Internet. And among the rest, who do have access, about a third, some 93 million Americans, have chosen not to be connected, with most citing cost and lack of digital literacy as the main reasons.

MAN: It becomes like any other utility, water, electricity.

JEFFREY BROWN: As part of last year’s stimulus bill, Congress mandated that the FCC come up with a plan to expand broadband speed and reach in the U.S. For many months, the agency has held a series of forums to hear and debate ideas.

MAN: What’s the minimum set of applications that we expect every United States household to be able to have access to?

JEFFREY BROWN: Some public interest groups have called for the FCC to take a stronger regulatory hand and treat Internet service providers, the companies that sell access to the Internet, more like phone companies.

NARRATOR: Broadband innovation and investment.

JEFFREY BROWN: A number of those providers recently responded with TV ads to fend off any new regulation on the private sector.

NARRATOR: So, as Washington works on a national broadband plan, policy-makers should build on what’s working.

JEFFREY BROWN: This week, the FCC is rolling out that plan — among its highlights, reallocating some of the broadcast spectrum for use by wireless broadband services, taking money from the $8 billion Universal Service Fund — it now goes to help subsidize rural phone service — and using it instead to subsidize broadband services for consumers who currently lack access, and requiring new consumer protections, such as more information on bills to make clearer what services, including actual Internet speed, are being provided.

The report doesn’t include regulatory changes for Internet service providers, but the agency says it will look for inequality in service around the country and then address any issues it sees with unfair competition.

The commission report sets a goal of getting 90 percent of people to actually use broadband by 2020. It says that bringing high-speed access to all U.S. homes by that date is possible without new funding. But the Congress could speed up that process by allocating more money.

This morning, I sat down with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

How do you define the problem that you’re trying to address with broadband?

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI, chairman, Federal Communications Commission: The stakes are huge, because the rest of the world isn’t standing still.

We are lagging behind globally when it comes to our broadband infrastructure, our high-speed Internet infrastructure, and its adoption. Other countries have moved ahead of us. Inside the United States, we’re lagging. Some communities aren’t using broadband or don’t have access to broadband in numbers that are significantly higher than others, rural Americans, kids, low-income Americans, seniors.

But the critical thing is that the costs of digital exclusion, the costs of not being on our broadband grid, are high and getting higher.

JEFFREY BROWN: How should we think of broadband access now? Is it like the phone? Is it replacing the phone or broadcast TV now or some time in the near future? How do you think about it?

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: Sure.

Well, in terms of universal service, the answer is yes. You know, we recognized with telephone service, electricity, other services, that they were essential for our economy, essential platforms for innovation and job creation, and they needed to extend everywhere geographically in the United States, and that we needed to set a policy that made sure that all Americans adopted it.

Broadband is exactly like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why has the U.S. been slow on this? Why have we fallen behind?

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: Well, it’s a good question.

I think one of the reasons is that we haven’t taken seriously the need for a plan. We haven’t set goals for the country. We haven’t said, this is important. We haven’t analyzed the gaps. We haven’t developed a strategic plan.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of what you’re doing is, you’re reallocating some funds, some spectrum. That means making decisions to switch technological priorities in ways that some industries will gain, some industries will lose.

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: Well, there’s — we need to be technologically neutral in how we move forward, but there are some things that are very clear obstacles to our success around broadband.

So, we want to promote both wired and wireless broadband. Let me talk for a minute about wireless. We have the ability to lead the world in wireless broadband. The smartphones that people are using, connecting your computers to air cards, fixed wireless broadband access, we can lead the world in this.

But there’s one very large obstacle. And that is, will we have enough spectrum, which is the oxygen for all of these devices, to meet the demands? We’re very concerned about that. And we think we have to move with urgency to free up enough spectrum, so that we can lead the world in mobile.

When it comes to other parts of our infrastructure, we still have policies that wake up every day and promote old telephone service. We need to finally take that program, cut and cap the money that’s going to old telephone services, and transition that money to support a new broadband infrastructure.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you say we, who — who — what is the role of government in this vis-a-vis the private sector, which has developed most of this infrastructure?

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: Absolutely.

We will not succeed in our broadband goals, if we don’t see massive investment from private sector companies. It’s why some of our core goals involve removing barriers to private sector investment, lowering the costs of investment, cutting through red tape. We need to take very seriously the fact that, in this country, our infrastructures are going to be built by private money.

There’s some areas where government needs to act. If we don’t make sure that there’s enough spectrum available for mobile broadband, we have real risks of not leading the world in mobile broadband.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even if some of the broadcasters don’t want to give up some of that spectrum.

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: There — there are real issues. We think, with respect to that, that we have developed a plan that’s win-win, where broadcasters can move to sharing frequencies with other broadcasters, save operating costs, and free up spectrum that can be used for mobile broadband and that can be auctioned for the benefit of the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some public interest groups, of course, wanted you to go a little further in regulating the Internet service providers, to treat them more like utilities or phone companies. You don’t seem to be doing that in this plan.

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: Well, we’re focused in this plan on the right policies to promote universal broadband deployment and universal broadband adoption.

And they include things like unleashing spectrum, reforming the Universal Service Fund, removing barriers to investment, promoting universal adoption, making sure we have a public safety network for our cops and firefighters and other first-responders.

We will make sure that we have the ability to move forward on those policies, but the first thing to do is to make sure that we have — we know what the policies are that are designed to produce global leadership for the United States when it comes to broadband.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you ensure competition sufficiently to bring down costs for people who want access, but feel they can’t afford it?

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: It’s vital that we have strong competition policies at the FCC. This is the best strategy in our country to produce investment and innovation, to produce lower prices and better services.

We will be moving forward with a series of initiatives that are in the plan. I will give you one example. Consumers right now are confused about many parts of their broadband service. What speeds are they actually getting? How do different parts work?

Often what consumers see is advertised speeds, but not what they actually get. And our broadband team found that what consumers actually get can be much lower.

One of the things we will do is move toward giving consumers more disclosure, more transparency, greater clarity about what service they’re actually getting, so that they can make the market work.

The second thing is, we’re going to be removing barriers to competition so that we can have robust competition. We’re also going to be fixing, finally, the data that we get at the FCC, so that we understand exactly what’s going on in multiple markets, so that we’re in a position to act.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s the goal? I mean, what is going to constitute success in, say, 10 years for you?

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: Our goal is to lift adoption in this country from about 65 percent to over 90 percent in the next 10 years. That would be moving three times as fast as penetration for telephone service.

We have goals around speed. Right now, on average, people are getting about four, five, six megabits per second. These — it’s hard to understand, but that’s what you’re getting now.

In order for us to take full advantage of broadband, remote diagnostics, where whether it’s an ambulance person or a doctor in a remote office can diagnose you remotely, or the best the teachers have to offer, remote tutoring, remote teachers, we will need to get those speeds up dramatically. We have set a goal of 100 megabits to 100 million households by 2020.

JEFFREY BROWN: One hundred, that’s like 25-fold over what you’re saying over where…

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: A very significant increase over where we are now.

It’s ambitious, but I think it’s what we need to do as a country to make sure we have the world-leading market for broadband, so that we keep our great entrepreneurs and innovators working here in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, thanks for talking to us.

JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: Thank you.