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3/25/2010
11:26 AM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: FCC Broadband Plan All Over The Map

Why should we think that government mandates will bring broadband to the masses more efficiently and effectively than the private sector already has over the past decade?

The FCC's marching orders from Congress a year ago were to develop a plan to spur broadband access and adoption across the U.S. But rather than pave the way for competing service providers to continue extending broadband access according to what people and companies actually demand, the 360-page report released this month has the FCC telling us what we need. In the process, the agency is getting into healthcare, energy, and other public policy areas outside its domain, and it's exposing itself to every special interest under the sun.

The FCC's stated mission: Close the "digital divide" over the next decade by providing universal, affordable broadband -- yet another inalienable right that future taxpayers will end up paying for. No matter that the U.S. has gone from 0% broadband penetration a little over a decade ago to 66% today without heavy-handed government intervention. That progress is evidently too slow and the broadband capacity deployed too narrow for the federal government's tastes, so it's now up to the bureaucrats to march us to 90% penetration and much fatter pipes by 2020 in order to create "a more productive, creative, efficient America."

What's more, the FCC now sees as part of its mandate the need to "reform laws, policies, standards, and incentives to maximize the benefits of broadband in sectors government influences significantly, such as public education, healthcare, and government operations" -- the telecom regulator turned public policy enabler.

Even if we needed to accelerate our national broadband rollout, why must the federal government brandish the whip? Because by leaving broadband to the capitalist forces of supply and demand, we're told, the U.S. has "fallen behind" countries whose broadband policies have laid the groundwork for a host of 21st century healthcare, research, education, energy, and other business and societal applications. A 2008 report from the non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, for instance, ranked the U.S. 15th among 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband household penetration, speed, and price.

Yet the World Economic Forum, the same highly respected organization that runs the annual leadership summit in Davos, Switzerland, ranks the U.S. among the leading networked economies -- third in the world in what it calls "network readiness," behind only Denmark and Sweden. What about state-sponsored broadband "powerhouses" South Korea and Japan, Nos. 1 and 2 in the ITIF report? Despite their double-digit Mbps of capacity to just about every home and office, Korea and Japan rank only 11th and 17th in the WEF's index, which takes into account the extent of telecom competition, government regulation, and taxation in each country, as well as their financial market sophistication, climate for innovation, and technology aptitude -- not just how fat, prevalent, and cheap their broadband connections are. By the WEF's broader measure, the U.S. isn't the broadband backwater the Obama administration, networking vendors, labor unions, and other interests make it out to be.

The FCC broadband plan focuses on raw measures: speed, access, and affordability. Among the plan's main goals:

• Ensure that at least 100 million U.S. homes have affordable access to download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 50 Mbps by 2020. How the FCC is to "ensure" that this happens isn't clear; it's not even clear what's meant by "affordable," as the FCC hasn't gathered broadband pricing data.

• Ensure that the U.S. has the world's fastest and most extensive wireless networks, mostly by freeing up radio spectrum for broadband services. Fair enough -- spectrum allocation is clearly the FCC's role.

• Extend broadband to underserved communities over the next 10 years by reallocating money in the existing $8 billion Universal Service Fund, a taxpayer-supported slush fund originally set up to ensure that basic phone service gets to rural areas. The plan also proposes extending the Lifeline and Link-Up programs (which now provide discounts on basic phone service to income-eligible consumers) to broadband customers, as well as creating a Digital Literacy Corps. to teach people how to use computers and the Web.

• Ensure that every community has affordable access to at least 1-Gbps service via "anchor" institutions such as schools, hospitals, and government buildings. It's not clear how those connections would be funded, but anchors aweigh!

• Build a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network, at a taxpayer cost of at least $16 billion.

A range of special interests came out in force to commend the FCC for its noble vision (if not its attention to detail) and to claim the fruits (and the pork) of the billions of dollars that will be spent.

• Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen likes that the plan "will help maintain and create quality jobs for network and content workers."

• The National Grange exhorts the FCC "to ensure farming, rural, and tribal communities" get their fair broadband share.

• David Honig, president of the Minority Media & Telecom Council, expressed "warm congratulations" to the FCC for "securing the full participation of minority business enterprises (MBEs) in the new digital economy."

• Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), not to be confused with the AARP splinter group Women Impacting Public Policy Long After Seniors Have (WIPP LASH), expressed optimism "that one day in the near future, all women will have the opportunity to utilize broadband technology for their economic success."

That's all very nice. Who wouldn't want more and cheaper and faster broadband, all else being equal? But there's no reason to think government mandates will do it more efficiently and effectively than the private sector already has over the past decade.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief, InformationWeek
rpreston@techweb.com

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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