FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said Tuesday that some people still aren't treating broadband as a national priority, and pointed to the recent decision on the agency's annual broadband access report as an example. Genachowski was addressing a broadband summit at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis hosted by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The FCC chairman conceded that participants at the summit would be expected to agree that broadband is a priority, but said: "I do want you to know that is not the uniform opinion in Washington or in our state governments."
The FCC in its most recent report (issued last month) on whether broadband access was being provided in a timely and reasonable way concluded, for the first time, that it was not. The reaction to that conclusion was divided along the same policy lines that separate the two sides of the network neutrality debate.
The commission, per the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has to regularly report on the state of broadband. This was the sixth report, following five that concluded deployment was timely and reasonable. But this is a new chairman and the report had some new ground rules, including what speed of service qualified and with a tighter definition of where it was available.
The result, said the FCC, did not meet the congressional standard of timely and reasonable for "all" Americans.
He said that in contrast to past reports in which the FCC looked at broadband and said, "yes, everything's fine," that when he looked at it with his staff he came to a far different conclusion. "I said 'this is crazy.' We see how other countries are moving, we see the challenges, the answer is 'No.' "
He said that one would have thought that conclusion would have been "unanimous and without criticism....That was a 3-2 vote." The conclusion was criticized by many in industry as well as the dissenting commissioners, who said they were troubled by the failing grade.
"[P]eople in this room understand about the importance of broadband to small businesses, to our economy, to healthcare and public safety," he said, "[but] we're in the early innings in terms of having it really become a national priority," he said, adding that more people have to understand that standing still is equivalent to moving backwards.
Klobuchar and Genachowski both cited figures showing the U.S. was falling behind in broadband deployment and innovation. The chairman cited one study that showed the U.S. had dropped from 15th to 18th in the world even since the National Broadband Plan was released last March. While he said some have criticized the study as not comparing apples to apples, he said that even discounted by half, it was "not good enough."
Both also pledged their support for an open Internet, with Genachowski saying there needed to be a framework in place to insure it. Currently, the FCC is contemplating his proposed framework of applying some Title II regulations to broadband access.
Also at the forum was Communications Workers of America Minnesota State Council president Tim Lovaasen. CWA is currently participating in talks to find a targeted legislative fix to clarify the FCC's broadband regulatory authority, which is what the chairman is trying to do with the Title II approach.
Lovaasen put in a pitch for that targeted approach, which he said should affirm the FCC open Internet guidelines, add transparency and nondiscrimination provisions, as the agency has proposed in a separate network neutrality rulemaking, and make allowances for reasonable network management. Lovaasen said that the NAACP, Urban League and AFL-CIO also support that approach.
Genachowski talked more broadly of the rising costs of digital exclusion, including for those looking for jobs or more
affordable healthcare. Essentially freedoms of expression, of access to government, and solutions for healthcare, education and public safety, all rely on a robust and healthy broadband ecosystem, he said.
The chairman said that there are two sets of problems with broadband, one that part of the country -- over 24 million people -- don't have the infrastructure even if they wanted to connect, and that the 66% adoption rate for those who can connect is still too low. The goal, he said, is fast, affordable and open broadband, and that "Internet freedom" is essential to consumers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses. Internet users, not ISPs, should be deciding what content and services they get, he said, and entrepreneurs and innovators need to be able to access an open Internet if they are to "participate and thrive."
Klobuchar said the three pillars for expanding access are 1) making sure it is remains open, secure and accessible; 2) that it is expanded in a way that strengthens the economy and stimulates jobs, and 3) that it encourages investment in streamlined infrastructure, which will require collaboration between government and industry, something Lovaasen also emphasized.
Minneapolis has become a summer destination for Democratic FCC Commissioners of late. Last week, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn (the other two majority votes in the 3-2 decision on broadband) were in the city last week for a public forum on Internet access.