In the economic stimulus legislation that President Obama signed into law earlier this year, the FCC is directed to develop a "national broadband plan" that, among other things, reports to Congress how we can better take advantage of broadband to meet our nation’s needs in education, health care and other key areas. This is clearly intended to be a cross-cutting, multiagency effort, and on April 8 the FCC started the process.

The FCC’s planning effort presents the perfect opportunity for the U.S. government to take a comprehensive, holistic approach to these issues - because no matter how good we make our broadband networks (and they’re getting faster, and reaching more Americans, every day) our nation will never be able to take full advantage of what I like to call our "broadband opportunities" if we don’t comprehensively address the many legal and policy barriers to success.

A few weeks ago, I was an observer at a policy roundtable in Washington that explored broadband opportunities in areas such as education, health care and energy and barriers to achieving them. Read on to read about what was discussed, and my thoughts.

I heard a particularly compelling presentation by Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). She explained that "online learning" means much more than just "distance learning." It’s an efficient way to provide access to advance placement courses (one-third of high schools in the U.S. offer none), share master teacher resources (the entire state of Georgia has only 88 qualified physics teachers, and qualified only one in the last two years), and provide remediation learning.

The U.S. is not placing the kind of resources behind online education that other nations are, Patrick said. While the use of online education in the U.S. is growing 30 percent a year, that still means only one million students took advantage of such courses last year. By contrast, there was no online learning at all in Turkey three years ago – today, thanks to public/private partnerships, 15 million kids are participating.

Meanwhile, Singapore has 100 percent of its secondary school student population using online learning. In fact, every year they shut down all the schools to celebrate "E-Learning Week" and conduct all coursework online. China put its entire K-12 curriculum online three years ago. Mexico has done the same thing, while also providing a laptop to every teacher, and training every teacher in how to use online learning.

What stands in the way of wider use of online learning in the U.S.? Patrick identifies a number of barriers, including divergent state academic standards ("there really aren’t 50 different ways to teach Algebra 1"), failure of states to provide adequate appropriations for the "virtual schools" they have, failure to make competency in online instruction part of teacher qualification criteria, and – despite a decade-long effort through the E-Rate program to get schools online –a continuing lack of sufficient broadband resources in the schools.

What can we do? Patrick offers a number of recommendations: remove the legal restrictions that bar the Department of Education from even exploring national curriculum standards, use federal dollars from existing programs (like No Child Left Behind and the new economic stimulus program) to expand educational options and reach more kids in school and at home with broadband, target more federal teacher training dollars toward online teaching, and benchmark our online education efforts against the top 10 countries (something she says the National Governors Assn. wants to do and that Education Secretary Duncan supports).

This is the kind of holistic thinking that I hope will inform the FCC’s national broadband plan.