Why the FCC's $4.5 Billion Rural Broadband Plan is Good For America

Buried deep amid the weekly reports that government agencies release each week in Washington, and lost amid the speculation of faster GDP growth in the United States, came some encouraging news from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC has just approved a $4.5 billion fund to expand broadband access to the 5% of Americans living in rural areas without high speed internet — affecting nearly 20 million people. This is a welcome effort that will undoubtedly be ignored because of circumstances surrounding its timing. The plan comes amid increased legislative skepticism in Washington, particularly in light of the Solyndra loan fiasco and at a time when Republican and Democratic lawmakers are questioning the success of federal loan guarantees and “new economy” grants for clean energy.

Yet, the FCC’s new broadband initiative should be applauded for the obvious model it sets for improving the method of developing plans for the nationwide deployment of broadband services. The FCC’s move immediately drew praise from Democratic lawmakers, consumer groups, and some Internet service providers who have said federal programs have lagged well behind consumer trends that are placing immense burdens on the broadband spectrum. One-third of Americans have replaced landline phones for cellular phones, for example.

The plan is a good idea also because it establishes a real environment for job creation at a time when consumers are demanding that the government step up in creative ways to address American economic woes. Such a move, while not unprecedented, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for America’s outdated broadband infrastructure system. It may at best result in serious job creation and at worst ensure definitive infrastructure improvement in this country.

The FCC plan has the potential to show more tangible results though than any plan before it. According to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, under this proposal, within a decade, 18 million Americans without internet access today will be connected by landline broadband connections or mobile services at 3G or 4G speeds. The FCC touts this new initiative as an economic growth measure, predicting that the expansion will create 500,000 jobs and strengthen U.S. infrastructure as a direct result. While the issue of whether or not these claims may actually improve the economy is debatable and certainly overly optimistic, this news has given fodder to technology policy observers interested in the equitable deployment of broadband spectrum worldwide.

A United Nations commission declaration that came out last week is equally impressive in its breadth, and it takes the FCC’s new initiative to provide broadband to rural and underrepresented locales even further, by expanding the scope to an international level. While the new UN broadband initiative establishes four long-term targets for growth, the initiative also sets attainable goals for national broadband strategies. The UN commission has released a plan that is not only a good idea, but that also sets fair international benchmarks for expanding broadband in the international internet landscape.

The UN commission, while specifically outlining new international targets for broadband, capitalizes most on emerging markets, and its primary mission is making broadband affordable in emerging nations. “By 2015 entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing countries through adequate regulation and market forces,” the UN’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development said.

In addition, the commission’s recommendations are specifically for affordable broadband, as the group suggested a benchmark that entry-level broadband services should cost less than 5% of average income in developing markets. This should be welcome news for governments that right now may not have the means to deliver broadband or are struggling to deliver broadband cheaply.

The commission also called for internet user penetration to reach 60% worldwide by 2015, setting even more specific benchmarks for the least developed countries. This is a good standard, as the report called for at least 15% internet penetration in the least developed of its target nations, compared to 50% in developing countries.

But is providing large-scale broadband services for developing nations doable? Recent successes in the United States in providing broadband to rural markets suggest that the UN commission’s goals, while ambitious, may also be attainable. Technology policy enthusiasts and lay-people alike watching the implementation of this challenging international objective should approach it not only with a hint of skepticism, but also with the relish that an interesting humanitarian objective of this scope truly deserves.

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