Accelerating the Great Broadband Migration

Charles Benton

We’re number 2! We’re number 2! China has now topped the United States in total number of broadband subscribers and its growth rate in this field doubles ours. In the U. S., we’re not used to being the runner-up. But when it comes to the Internet, we’ve become an “also ran” on the international scene. We now rank 15th out of 30 developed nations in per capita broadband penetration.

Years ago, Congress decided that the U.S. should promote the continued development of the Internet and required the Federal Communications Commission to encourage the deployment of broadband to all Americans. On June 2, the Benton Foundation offered the FCC a comprehensive, equitable plan to make universal, affordable broadband in the U.S. a reality.

I believe the FCC must redirect a web of traditional phone subsidies into funding the extension of digital broadband to everyone in the country. It is not only achievable and worthwhile; it is required by law.

The federal Universal Service Fund (USF) is a multibillion dollar annual web of subsidies targeted at making traditional telephone service available and affordable throughout the U.S. The FCC has been seeking public input on reforming USF to meet our communications needs in the 21st century.

More than 99 percent of American homes have access to telephone service and nearly 95 actually subscribe. In contrast, no one really knows how many U.S. households actually have access to high-speed Internet service. Fewer than 51 percent of U.S. households subscribed to broadband in October 2007 and just 38.8% of rural households subscribed. In reforming the USF, the FCC should recognize that the problem of advancing universal broadband is bigger than universal telephone service and it is time to allocate resources accordingly.

FCC rules must ensure broadband service is available and affordable to everyone – including low-income consumers and people who live in rural areas that are expensive to serve. Care must be taken in the Digital Age so the U.S. does not become a nation of digital haves and have-nots. We are already on that trajectory, with millions lacking basic access to the Internet.

Some may tell the FCC that using USF support for broadband will be too costly, creating a burden for telephone companies and their customers. And it is true that merely extending universal service support to broadband, without a commensurate decrease in analog support, could indeed increase costs to consumers who can’t afford to pay more. Instead, broadband support should be phased in over 5 years while phasing out support for analog telephone service. The move will spur new competition and enable providers to offset any costs through increased subscriber services like voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video that are possible on broadband networks.

The migration from analog phone service to digital broadband could enable incredible consumer benefits. The availability of the Internet has already had a profound impact on American life: it has fundamentally changed the way we communicate. But to enjoy the potential of this powerful medium, we must ensure that it reaches us all affordably. The FCC has the authority to accelerate the broadband migration and it must act immediately to ensure we don’t fall farther behind the rest of the world.

Read the Benton Foundation FCC filing

By Charles Benton.