From Wires to People

On August 19, the Federal Communications Commission devotes a full day to people.

After talking about deployment and technology and even small business, Wednesday's discussion shifts to why and how people use broadband. The FCC is in the middle of a series of discussions on creating a National Broadband Plan. So far, the talk has mainly been about wires (and wireless) and homes passes.

The FCC's Broadband Deployment Director, Rob Curtis, reports what the message so far has been:

"First, panelist after panelist reminded us that getting the broadband plan will not only be a matter of plugging bitrates and marginal costs into a formula to yield a number, but also considering the challenge holistically and attempting to capture the entire economic impact of broadband. Second, whether your family or small business has "broadband" is not simply a matter of the peak speeds you can attain over your connection, if you currently have one; rather, it incorporates a host of other considerations, like latency and reliability, that impact the performance of applications like VoIP and collaborative office software. And finally, many of our experts on wireless technology emphasized the importance of spectrum to our national wireless future - both improving the efficiency of existing spectrum and exploring making spectrum available in frequencies currently occupied by other technologies, such as analog cable television."

Today the FCC looks at: A) the current state of data on broadband adoption and utilization, as well as the associated measurement and other challenges, B) the ways in which broadband services can benefit consumers, particularly those in groups that historically have been less likely to adopt or utilize broadband, and C) existing adoption programs that aim to increase adoption and utilization of broadband.

The focus of the FCC's adoption and utilization workshops is no accident. It is an innate wisdom of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which mandates that the National Broadband Plan, due in February 2010, be approached as not just a plan to build Internet networks. Broadband, the law recognizes, is a critical tool in meeting some of the most daunting challenges we face as a nation. By law, the plan must address "advancing consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth, and other national purposes." In addition, the plan must include:

  1. an evaluation of the status of deployment of broadband service;
  2. an analysis of the most effective and efficient mechanisms for ensuring broadband access by all people of the United States; and
  3. a detailed strategy for achieving affordability of such service and maximum utilization of broadband infrastructure and service by the public.

What policymakers are likely to hear today is that the reason people don't subscribe to and use broadband is because it is not relevant to their lives, it is too expensive, it is not available where they live or it is just too difficult. Moreover, Professor Sharon Strover of the University of Texas will highlight the state of rural broadband adoption and use:

  • People in rural areas want the same things people in urban areas want with respect to the Internet and technology.
  • Costs are higher, incomes are lower.
  • Access to expertise is a problem.
  • Role models and leadership often have to be cultivated & supported.
  • Small town and rural environments need evidence & models in order to improve perceptions of BB.
  • Public sources of Internet connections are important in low income & rural communities.
  • However, not all public access sites are suitable for *all* uses of broadband (notably, higher education)
  • Rural small businesses can benefit from broadband but lack the knowledge base that would maximize their opportunities.

For some time, the Benton Foundation has been advocating that by promoting both the supply of and the demand for broadband, the National Broadband Plan will establish a "virtuous circle" in which an increased supply of robust and affordable broadband stimulates creation of applications that produce wide-ranging, valuable social benefits that then causes citizens to demand even more robust and affordable broadband; which in turn stimulates greater investment in more robust broadband; which then stimulates the creation of even more beneficial applications that cause citizens to demand even more robust and affordable broadband. Strong federal leadership, expressed in a comprehensive National Broadband Plan, is crucial to ending the stand-off between those ready to invest in the deployment of robust broadband once great technologies and applications emerge to take advantage of it, and those ready to invest in transforming technologies and applications and who are waiting for robust broadband to be built out.

We at Benton will be closely following the FCC's broadband workshops. We hope you do, too.

By Kevin Taglang.