Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beyond the FCC's Push for 100 Mbps to 100 Million

Business Week

The challenge will be to deliver universal service, telehealth, a smart grid, school broadband, and digital literacy

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has outlined his vision for broadband in the U.S.: delivering 100 Mbps connections to 100 million homes.As part of an update on the National Broadband Plan due before Congress in mid-March, Genachowski sketched out a plan that would keep the U.S. competitive with other nations and enable 90% of the population to have and use broadband, up from about 65% today.

The proposed speeds seem pretty exciting, but the devil is in the details. Currently, at least 55 million homes have the infrastructure to get 100 Mbps deployments through fiber to the home or through a cable DOCSIS 3.0 deployment (the ISP may not offer 100 Mbps to the home, but it could be delivered). The time frame for getting 100 Mbps connections to 100 million homes wasn't defined, although Genachowski called this a "2020 vision." While I think a decade is too long to wait for 100 Mbps to a third of the nation, getting that much deployed is by far the plan's easiest aspect.

Speaking at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Conference in Washington, Genachowski said:

"Our plan will set goals for the U.S. to have the world's largest market of very high-speed broadband users. A '100 Squared' initiative—100 million households at 100 megabits per second—to unleash American ingenuity and ensure that businesses, large and small, are created here, move here, and stay here.

"And we should stretch beyond 100 megabits. The U.S. should lead the world in ultra-high-speed broadband test beds as fast or faster than anywhere in the world. In the global race to the top, this will help ensure that America has the infrastructure to host the boldest innovations that can be imagined. Google announced a one-gigabit test bed initiative just a few days ago—and we need others to drive competition to invent the future."
a broad range of needs and goals

In addition to delivering 100 Mbps to almost a third of the population, Genachowski laid out several areas where the FCC would act to provide small businesses and rural areas with broadband. There were also hints as to how the FCC will convince laggards that broadband is a good thing. It sounds as if some of that convincing will come from lower access costs in some areas, combined with an overall shift in delivering services—from medicine to schooling—via broadband networks. The plan outlined by Genachowski includes the following recommendations:

• To improve the E-Rate program for Internet connections in classrooms and libraries.

• To modernize the FCC's rural telemedicine program to connect thousands of additional clinics and eliminate bureaucratic barriers to telehealth.

• To take the steps necessary to deploy broadband for the smart grid.

• To develop public/private partnerships to increase Internet adoption, so children can use the Internet proficiently and safely. Programs like the NCTA's new A+ program are a model.

• To free up a significant amount of spectrum in the years ahead for ample licensed and unlicensed use.

• To use government rights of way and conduits to lower the cost of wired and wireless broadband deployments.

• To build an interoperable public safety network to replace the current system.

Genachowski also said that while other countries with broadband plans have universality goals whose speeds range as high as 1-to-2 megabits per second, the U.S. goal for universal service will be higher. He talked up digital literacy as well, saying every child must be digitally literate by the time he or she leaves high school. He also offered scary statistics that Om Malik and I called on the FCC to address last year:

• Right now, roughly 14 million Americans do not have access to broadband.

• The U.S. broadband adoption rate is about 65%, compared with 88% in Singapore and 95% in South Korea.

• The U.S. adoption rate is even lower than 65% among low-income, minority, rural, tribal, and disabled households.

• Some 26% of rural business sites do not have access to a standard cable modem and 9% lack DSL.

• More than 70% of small businesses have little or no mobile broadband.

So this appears to be a decent sketch, although it's far less revolutionary than it might seem. Filling in the details around lowering costs and delivering actual services are where the plan could have the most impact. Getting a 100 Mbps pipe to a few million more people over the next decade will happen whether or not the FCC puts it in the National Broadband Plan. Delivering faster universal service to rural and low-income areas, real telehealth, a smart grid, broadband to schools and creating a digital literacy programs will be the real challenges.