Day 1 of the National Broadband Plan

[Source: Benton Foundation, by Charles Benton, March 16, 2010]

To paraphrase poet Robert Burns,

 

"The best laid plans of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!"

 

 

For weeks, the National Broadband Plan team at the Federal Communications Commission has operated under a clock counting down the days to today. But today, for all of us, is Day 1 of the National Broadband Plan. We will all scurry to absorb the conclusions and recommendations of the plan. And, tomorrow, we will -- we must -- roll up our sleeves to make sure we all enjoy the promise of truly universal, affordable broadband.

Later today, the FCC will release our first National Broadband Plan, the fruit of countless hours of work headed by Blair Levin, Erik Garr, and the Omnibus Broadband Initiative team. The Herculean effort to collect the data, analyze it and deliver the broadband plan in just over a year is truly amazing.

The promise of the plan is broadband access for all Americans, affordability, and maximum use of broadband to improve 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.

The plan is much anticipated. In January 2007, I called on then-President George Bush to create a national broadband strategy with set benchmarks, deployment timetables, a commitment to demand drivers, and measurable thresholds. Since that time, I've dedicated the Benton Foundation's efforts - both independently through our publication of An Action Plan for America and through coalitions like the U.S. Broadband Coalition and the Media and Democracy Coalition - to help us reach this day.

I am thrilled to read the FCC's plan. But as relieved as I am that the FCC has delivered the plan -- and fully cognizant of the incredible work done inside and outside the Commission to get us here -- let me be among the first to identify our new challenge: we must implement this plan - quickly - while evaluating our investments in broadband to inform our next national broadband plan.

The plan sets us on a new telecommunications course, but only if it is acted upon. I trust, to some degree, that the momentum within the FCC will launch a number of proceedings to make good on some of the recommendations in the plan. And the leadership from the White House will likely press for change with in the Executive Branch. But we will need to keep up the pressure, especially on Congress, to transform the plan into new, effective policy.

Congress will be key in transforming the Universal Service Fund -- historically devoted mainly to supporting affordable telephony connections -- into a springboard for expanding broadband availability and use. Congress must also be engaged if we are to both identify and make available new swaths of spectrum to fulfill our growing mobile communications needs -- especially for public safety.

Some may balk at the expansiveness of the plan and the FCC's calls for additional spending. Others may say that there is no need to enact this plan, that the marketplace alone will deliver the high-speed networks and services we need to improve people's lives. But the plan is exactly what Congress called for and the law requires. Our over-reliance on the marketplace to date has left us with gaping divides between people with the access and skills they need to make effective use of today's most powerful communications tools and those who don't. We embark on implementing this plan so that each of us - no matter our income, education, ethnicity or age - have the opportunity to fully participate in our society.

Congress also called for the FCC to evaluate the deployment of broadband in the US - including the progress of Recovery Act-funded broadband stimulus projects. Although the FCC today delivers a snapshot of broadband deployment around the country, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and Broadband Initiatives Program projects are just getting off the ground.

To honestly appraise the effectiveness of these community broadband investments, the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Rural Utilities Service should commit now to collect the right data, organize it and make it publicly available according to the latest methods from information science and community informatics. Done right, this data could contribute to real time adjustment, refinement, correction and recalibration of these projects to ensure success.

 

In addition, the experience of these projects could inform the coming reform of the Universal Service Fund and offer the data needed to inform future investment in broadband deployment. Those are incredibly high stakes that will impact our nation's ability to compete economically against global competitors, to increase our energy efficiency, to improve educational outcomes, and to achieve the promise of high-quality, affordable healthcare.

Let us not let the National Broadband Plan go askew. Every stakeholder - and, as FCC Commissioner Michael Copps often points out, that is all of us - must gear up to make today's plan a reality.