Early Steps on FCC’s Road to Universal Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission settled in for its monthly meeting this afternoon, a marathon session devoted to updating the commissioners on the agency’s work in developing a national broadband strategy.

The agenda, which included 21 presentations and more than 150 PowerPoint slides, was a dramatic reminder of just enormous the task facing the agency is.

“The challenge that we all have to recognize is that the task that we’re being asked to do cannot really be done with the current resources,” Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative, said at this afternoon’s meeting.

Levin stressed that the administration’s goal of delivering robust, affordable high-speed service to all Americans will require the agency to “unleash underutilized assets,” asserting that the combined public and private expenditures won’t be enough to bridge the digital divide.

Today’s hearing follows 26 public workshops FCC staffers have held focusing on various aspects of the U.S. Internet market as they race to deliver the broadband plan to Congress next February. Six more workshops are planned.

“It’s an unusual process for the FCC,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said. “We haven’t seen anything quite like this before.”

Congress directed the FCC to develop the broadband strategy as part of the economic stimulus package enacted in February. That mandate was part of a growing recognition that the United States is not where it needs to be with regard to universal, affordable broadband service.

“The social cost of not being online is increasing,” said Carlos Kirjner, special adviser to Chairman Genachowski.

In its preliminary research, the FCC’s broadband task force found that more than 70 percent of high school students say the Internet is their primary resource for doing their homework, Levin said.

The FCC team also found that the majority of large employers no longer accept paper résumés from job applicants.

In the spirit of Levin’s comment that the agency must wring more value out existing resources, the task force is developing various policy recommendations, such as reforming the FCC’s spectrum regime and the subsidy it uses to provide low-income Americans with telephone service, the Universal Service Fund, to include broadband.

However, as the nearly 41,000 pages of comments the FCC has already received on the matter make clear, even the goal of universal, affordable broadband isn’t a black and white matter.

Kirjner noted that delivering service sufficient for e-mail and basic Web browsing is a very different goal than the ubiquitous connectivity needed to support data-intensive applications, such as medical consultation or remote education.

“We attach meaning to the expression ‘universal broadband’ only when we describe what applications it will support,” he said.

The broadband task force is planning to develop more concrete policy recommendations in the weeks leading up to Feb. 17, when the review is due to Congress.

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