Circle of Knowledge

Charles Benton Comments, US Broadband Coalition meeting at FCC
September 24, 2009

Thank you, Jim Baller for asking me to speak today on behalf of "Consumer and Public Interest Organizations." This is a tall order and I'd like to offer the perspective of an operating foundation working on communications in the public interest. We've built our programs over the past 28 years on the 4 words in the will of my father, William Benton, to do "Good Works in Communications." We are, in part, a legacy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, of which he was both the Publisher and owner. Back in 1973, when my father passed away, the Encyclopedia, or "circle of knowledge," was embodied by the Britannica's publications. More recently that circle has been expanded by the Internet, making possible the free Wikipedia, created by volunteers, and Google, as the massive index to everything. We come from a proud heritage.

For nearly 30 years, the Benton Foundation has sought to articulate and support public policy solutions rooted in the American values of access, diversity, and equity in communications. Today there is no more important debate about our communications future than the National Broadband Plan. The course we set will profoundly impact people's participation in American life for many, many years to come.

I am overjoyed that we meet this morning in the Federal Communications Commission hearing room, where a series of open workshops have explored both the challenges and opportunities for broadband before us. I would like to salute the Commission and Blair Levin, in particular, for devising a process that both invites public participation and allows the public to scrutinize the advice the Commission is getting from a broad array of stakeholders. The Commission is truly showing us how broadband can improve the performance of government - specifically in terms of transparency and citizen participation - and, more generally, in terms of its effectiveness and efficiency.

This morning I would like to explore some issues with you under three general headings.

First, the issue of Broadband Data and Disclosure. Last Thursday I was at a meeting in Chicago at City Hall, hosted by the Hardik Bhatt, the City's Chief Information Officer. The goal of the meeting was to introduce Eric Garr, the FCC's General Manager of its Omnibus Broadband Initiative, to technology and civic leaders in Chicago. I think you would have been proud of the way he represented your work. I remember in particular his somewhat offhanded comment that "...on broadband data, first came the law, then the Stimulus money, then the mapping...and it should have been the other way around." In the real world, politics often trumps logic.

Understanding the current broadband needs, defining new demand requirements, and measuring the impact of the Stimulus funding requires comprehensive, open, consumer focused data collection. All data collected using public funds should be made publicly available. The FCC and NTIA should share common data sets for speed, cost, and availability. Transparency and accountability for developing the data sets for measuring success is critical. Policy should be driven by community needs as well as by telecommunication industry needs. The process we've used thus far on data collection and disclosure is changing, and will get better with the new leadership at the FCC and NTIA.

Second is the matter of Universal Service Reform. I was delighted to note the announcement last week from Chairman Genachowski that the FCC is now committed to a deadline of no later than February 17, 2010, to come up with "real options" on Universal Service reform. This is big news. Along with many others in the public interest community, the Benton Foundation has made recommendations to the FCC about how to help the Universal Service Fund more effectively use 21st Century technology in addressing the needs of unserved and underserved populations. Most people don't realize that the Universal Service Fund is spending annually more money than is available only once from the Broadband Stimulus funding of 7.2 billion dollars under BTOP and BIP. Therefore, how could the Commission think more boldly about the interrelationships between these two separate funding streams, so that perhaps the USF future funding could at least in part pick up where BTOP and BIP leave off?

Let me address very briefly some thoughts about each of the three basic components of the Universal Service Fund. First, as to the High Cost Area funding that is approaching $5 billion annually, why not phase in the support for rural broadband that includes telephone service, thus giving both consumers and small rural telephone companies the opportunity to benefit from the new 21st Century Technology of broadband, regardless of the means of delivery? Secondly, for the E-Rate, which is the only current broadband related support in USF, not only should the support for schools, libraries and rural health care be strengthened and stabilized, but why not explore with Congress the inclusion of clinics and other healthcare institutions who serve underserved populations in our cities to add to the Rural Health Net pilot program the FCC launched several years ago? Perhaps by thinking more broadly about how the E-Rate can meet healthcare as well as education needs, it could strengthen both the funding base and outreach that can be provided by telemedicine and other broadband health applications. Finally, as to the Lifeline/Link Up program, the FCC was recently considering one or more pilot projects involving broadband; and the state of North Carolina, which has set this as one of its top priorities, would be a great place to start the transformation. It is exciting for me to think about the opportunities for progress with Universal Service Reform through the FCC's involving its National Broadband Planning team, in helping to push this forward.

Third is the relationship between Broadband and our Nation's Critical Challenges. In today's summary report from the U.S. Broadband Coalition to the FCC, the first section deals with "Opportunities that Universal, Affordable Broadband Connectivity Create for America." I'm proud to note that the sequence of opportunities described in that section follow the major points in the Benton Foundation's December 2008 publication, "An Action Plan for America: Using Technology and Innovation to Address our Nation's Critical Challenges - A report for the next Administration." I believe a major contribution of both our report and the Coalition's is to help link the new broadband technology to meeting our nation's critical needs in economic development and job creation, healthcare, education, energy and the environment, public safety and homeland security, civic engagement, and meeting the special needs of people with disabilities and older Americans.

In addition to the outstanding workshops that the FCC has created around these and many other subjects during August and September, there is another vehicle that you might consider using for outreach and information sharing on these critical challenges. I'm thinking about the Interagency Task Force on technology that is led by the White House and co-chaired by Susan Crawford and Jim Kohlenberger. If Blair Levin has not already put such a meeting in motion, then might not the Omnibus Broadband Initiative at the FCC ask for some time, possibly even helping to set the agenda, during one of the weekly Tuesday afternoon meetings of this Task Force to discuss with top representatives from each Cabinet Department what it is you are trying to accomplish and how they might help? As we all know, the Obama Administration is heavily invested in using technology to achieve its goals, having recently appointed the government's first Chief Technology Officer, who serves in the OSTP at the White House, and also, a Chief Information Officer at the OMB.

What an exciting time to be doing what we're all doing in helping to redefine the role of government, along with business and the non-profit sector, to figure out new ways of harnessing the powers of technology to meet our nation's critical needs. I'm thrilled to be here and thanks for listening.

By Charles Benton.