Last winter, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (the "FCC") to develop a "national broadband plan" to be submitted to Congress by next February. In April, the FCC issued what it calls a "Notice of Inquiry" posing over 200 questions that it believes are relevant to developing a plan, and it asked the public to comment. The first round of comments is due at the FCC this Monday.
The Acting Chairman of the FCC, Michael Copps, has said that the FCC "has never, I believe, received a more serious charge" from Congress than the legislation directing the Commission to develop this plan. That’s probably not an overstatement. Done right and comprehensively, a national broadband plan should help Americans get the full benefits that broadband has to offer — not just news and entertainment, but education, health care, energy savings, the convenience of telecommuting, and much more.
We at Comcast have been giving a lot of thought to the questions the FCC has asked, and we’ll have a number of important points to make throughout this proceeding, starting on Monday. The headline news, I think, is that America is really fortunate to have so many broadband networks built by cable companies, phone companies, wireless companies, satellite companies, and other providers offering high-speed Internet services. In fact, thanks to the cable industry, an estimated 92 percent of Americans have at least one broadband Internet service provider running by their front door – all of it built with no subsidies from the government and no government-guaranteed rates of return. In the case of Comcast, we’ve built out our state-of-the-art fiber-coax network to literally 99 percent of the homes we pass in our footprint.
Now is the time to turn the government’s attention to the relatively small remaining portion of the US where there is no terrestrial (wired or wireless) broadband provider available. The $7 billion included in President Obama’s economic stimulus legislation is a good start to filling that coverage gap, if it’s spent wisely and efficiently. But for the most part, these geographic areas are not served by broadband because it makes no economic sense for a company to build networks there. If we want to get broadband networks and high-speed Internet everywhere in this nation, it will probably require some carefully targeted incentives and subsidies from the federal government. We will offer the FCC our best ideas on how to frame those incentives and subsidies – and in ways that don’t add taxes and fees to your broadband bill.
We will also ask the FCC, and the other agencies of government, to turn their attention to promoting what’s known as "broadband adoption" — that is, getting Americans to see how important broadband Internet service can be to their lives, and breaking down the barriers to their decision to start using it. Most of what you’ve probably heard about gaps in broadband use relates to so-called "access" issues – that is, whether there is a broadband Internet provider going by your front door. But that’s different than "adoption" – that is, whether you subscribe to service from that broadband Internet provider who goes by your front door. These are two different issues, and they require two distinct strategies.
A bit over 60 percent of Americans subscribe to broadband Internet service, less than 10 percent can’t access it (see above), and the remaining 30 percent haven’t joined the Broadband Generation for a wide variety of reasons. Some of these are educational — people need certain "digital literacy" skills to use a computer, to use software and applications, and to find their way around the Internet. Some of these are economic — people who can’t afford personal computers or other devices, or whose incomes are too low to afford a monthly Internet service subscription. Some of these are cultural — people are fearful of what is out there on the wide-open Internet and don’t want to expose their children to dangers. Just about all of these and the other barriers to adoption can be overcome, if government at all levels works with non-profit organizations and broadband Internet providers to educate the public and to find smart ways to make broadband (and computers) affordable for low-income consumers.
A concerted public effort to get Americans to use broadband is certainly something the government can accomplish through partnerships, including partnerships with the private sector — after all, we’re just about to complete the conversion of 100 percent of American homes to digital TV through an intensive education campaign and subsidies for equipment… why not do the same for broadband?
The FCC will hear a huge number of different proposals, and everyone will be telling the FCC what their priorities should be. We expect some of the ideas will be extreme — proposals to spend tens of billions of dollars on government-run networks to compete with phone and cable and wireless and satellite companies (a counterproductive waste of money)… proposals to require "forced resale" of broadband networks to competitors (and wasn’t that a terrific success for phone service — the answer, of course, is it was a disaster, and the only way we got more competition was when cable and wireless companies built new networks to compete with the phone companies)… and so on.
What we need is a national broadband plan that works. We hope — and we think — that the FCC will avoid the extreme in favor of the practical. We think the government should set clear goals: make sure there’s broadband Internet service in every corner of our nation, and get more Americans to adopt broadband. It’s not rocket science – just basic blocking and tackling. If we all stay focused on the goals, and steer clear of extreme, wasteful and counterproductive ideas, America will soon become the most connected nation on Earth.