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Feb 26 2010

Every Home Connected: National Internet Plan

A recent survey conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that a whopping nearly one-third of the U.S. population (93 million people) do not subscribe to broadband at home.  The main causes have been identified, and the government plans to address them at the national level.
 

Le musée de la Communication de Berlin, courtesy dalbera

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski discussed the survey’s findings at the Brookings Institute on Tuesday (February 23).  The three main barriers to Americans in obtaining broadband access at home are:

  • Affordability: 36% of respondents say the monthly fees, cost of installation, or purchasing a computer in the first place are too expensive.
  • Digital Literacy: 22% of respondents claim they lack the skills to use broadband internet or are afraid if the dangers of being online.
  • Relevance: 19% of respondents believe they simply don’t need broadband access at home.

Addressing these concerns, Genachowski asserted that not being connected in the coming digital age is simply not an option.  As quoted from a CNET article:

“We need to tackle the challenge of connecting 93 million Americans to our broadband future,” he said in a statement. “In the 21st century, a digital divide is an opportunity divide. To bolster American competitiveness abroad and create the jobs of the future here at home, we need to make sure that all Americans have the skills and means to fully participate in the digital economy.”

Unfortunately, the solution will not be a simple one.  In addressing the issue of affordability, the survey asked participants how much more likely they would be to subscribe to broadband access if the price were lowered substantially.  The current average subscription cost for high-speed internet is $40/mo.  If lowered by half to $20/mo., only 6% said they would buy in.  Even when lowered to a mere $10/mo., projected subscription rates only rose by 8%.  This indicates that among those claiming a problem with affordability, a significant percentage share concerns such as digital literacy and relevance.  Simply creating a cheaper government plan or offering subsidies for qualifying low-income residents will not come close to solving the problem.

The option of providing national broadband access is only a facet of a larger plan that Congress has ordered from the FCC.  This larger plan must (as the above affordability issue illustrates) not only provide infrastructure and service, but also educate Americans on how to safely and productively use high-speed internet and why use of the internet will be crucial to success in the burgeoning digital age.

The National Broadband Plan report received a four-week extension and is now due in Congress March 17.  One suggestion likely to be made, according to Marguerite Reardon, is to reallocate the government’s $7 billion Universal Service Fund for subsidizing telephone service to subsidize broadband instead.  The total cost of the greater plan, including infrastructure expansion and subscriber education, could reach up to $350 billion.  While this would be mostly payed for by private industry, the money must come from somewhere.

Said private industry are bristling at the increase in FCC involvement in what has traditionally been an unregulated market.  AT&T, Verizon, CTIA, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have issued challenges to the FCC as it attempts to bring internet service providers (ISPs) under its wing.  The FCC argues that as an increasingly standard and necessary medium of communication, the internet and its ISPs ought to be considered the same as telephone service and its providers (which it oversees and regulates).  Interestingly, it is the government with its regulation that is striving for an open web.  The current issue “stems from Comcast’s appeal of a 2007 ruling, which found that [Comcast] violated open-access guidelines that prohibited network providers from slowing or blocking Web sites.” (Kang)

With Congressional dreams of a connected country, the FCC will likely have all the support it needs to win its cases against an irate private internet industry.  However, the FCC will also need internet service providers’ active help in accomplishing its mandated goals.  Not to mention the public backlash over perceived or feared government monitoring of the heretofore unfettered web.  The road will be long and bumpy, but you can ultimately expect some form of Big Brother Broadband.

Do you think the FCC will continue to champion the open web?  What are your fears and concerns?  Comment and share to keep the discussion going.

Photo credits: Communication in Relationships by The Visions of Kai | New York City 
Comcast Center, Philadelphia, courtesy garyhymes
 

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1 comment

  1. Stewart Basler-Francis

    >I feel like Google' s efforts are more useful in the long run (http://www.google.com/appserve/fiberrfi/)

    While I respect the efforts of the government here, I feel like they're spending their energy in the wrong place. Instead of working on bettering access to those that want and need internet for their daily lives, they're trying to figure out why people in this day in age don't want it.

    Let's be honest, some people will just never want it. They'll never understand why everyone else does. It almost reads like the government is just trying to ascertain how to increase broadband penetration without due consideration of how the average citizen will actually use it. Do we really need to climb ever closer to everyone in the US joining Facebook?

    That mini-rant aside, there really are two parts of the conversation, core infrastructure and 'last mile' installations.

    The core infrastructure isn't really what they're talking about. The private industry typically (occasional de-peering aside) does a good job of making sure your bits get from one side of the globe to the other. It's the thousands of miles of fiber that lays buried beneath our cities and towns. There's still more buried than we're using at the moment. We can light up dark fiber pretty fast when we need it.. we just don't need it yet.

    No, what we're really talking about is the 'last mile' installations. That cable that runs from their service to your home. It's pretty expensive to wire up homes for a new service. So, no one is really going to want to do it without some fair guarantee that they will recoup their costs. Once that happens, typically you wind up with service lock-in and artificially reduced competition. It's rare to find a service area where you can choose between multiple carriers (aside Cable vs DSL.)

    So, at this point, what real impetus does the company have to offer a better product? You can move back to dial-up if you really want. However, they own the rights to that high-speed pipe you already have. That last mile is the choke point for any serious improvement to our internet access.

    Real competition is the only solution to our access issues. There have been several attempts to create a city-wide wifi (in several places) all of them have been quashed by telcos. (http://www.pcworld.com/article/121832/public_broadband_hits_speed_bumps.html) (http://news.cnet.com/Philadelphia-reveals-Wi-Fi-plan/2100-7351_3-5659252.html)

    What I think would make the most sense is for the government to declare the last mile a public good and open competition up. During the peak of internet dialup there was fierce competition. Not because it's a fundamentally different market, it's really not. They just ran out of differentiators. When it's the same internet and everyone's tied to the same modem speed you have to find some reason you're better. If you didn't like your service it was fairly simple to switch.

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