Federal Communications Commission staffers in Chicago were told in no uncertain terms that connecting small businesses and helping them use broadband at speeds sufficient for various applications is crucial to the national broadband plan.
The Federal government had the day off Monday in Washington--though several members of the broadband team were in the FCC's mostly empty headquarters, according to one broadband teammember. But in Chicago it was business as usual, which meant another broadband workshop and input from stakeholders.
Presiding over the small business broadband workshop was FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who indicated small businesses were preaching to the choir about their importance in the broadband plan and the need for speed.
"Over 50 percent of small businesses are still without Web sites," he said in his opening remarks. "Many small businesses do not have access to a basic broadband connection. One estimate indicates that 26 percent of rural business sites do not have access to a standard cable modem and 9 percent don't have DSL. And many more do not have access to the high-speed, high-quality broadband connections that are critical in today's fiercely competitive global marketplace."
Genachowski said the economic consequence of "digital exclusion" is that they will be cut out of a big market for their goods. "Small businesses increasingly see that their revenues are linked to online activity," he said. "Online retail sales will reach $334 billion by 2012, and 20 percent of consumers go online daily to find a product or service."
Jay Sharman, CEP of TeamWorks Media, which produces content for a variety of media, pointed to a couple of reasons speed matters to his business. In addition to a jitter-free streaming experience, there is the economic cost of the five-figures, and close to six-figures, a year he pays for unnecessary shipping costs.
He also said that since he had to pay to get fiber to the door for the speeds he does have, he has had to stay in the same space because it would be prohibitively expense to move after the ten's of thousands he spent.
The assembled entrepreneurs, local officials, a member of the Small Business Administration, and content providers echoed the same themes, which were access and speed, not necessarily in that order. Although before being prompted by the chairman for their input the group did not talk much about mobile broadband, all said in response to his query that it would be somewhere between important and vital.
In its ongoing collection of input for the national broadband rollout plan, Genachowski and company heard varying requests for broadband speeds. Ed Scanlon, from online legal services firm Total Attorneys, said he was looking for video streaming, which would be at least 50 megs downstream. Sharman said real-time streaming speeds would be his baseline as well. Craig Shields of manufacturing firm Graymills said if he could trade 100 megabit files in, say, a minute, he could cut new product development time from weeks to hours, making him more competitive overseas and leading to job creation.
Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, Milking the Rhino), said that the FCC's broadband plan must protect network neutrality and guard against distributors favoring their own content online. He also made a pitch for universal and affordable access, another theme that resonated with the Chicago panelists.
Roberto Cornelio said that universal access was more than just getting broadband to the door. He said that, especially for small businesses, and even more especially minority-owned businesses, deployment without tools and training was not access at all. He said the government needed to make sure that there was training and outreach to show those small business owners how to leverage broadband.
He complained that the stimulus program had yet to come up with a way to insure that minority businesses are full participants, including tapping into the billions in stimulus money.
Speed and access and affordability were all part of the equations drawn up in Chicago, but Norma Reyes, Commissioner for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection for Chicago, said getting all those things would require a public private partnership that understands that localities play a major role. They are, she said, the "first responders" when consumers aren't getting what they want or expect.
James Geiger, whose company offers high-speed to small businesses, pitched the FCC on requiring phone companies to sell bandwidth to competitors--like him--at retail rates. He called that a simple fix that would be a "cashless stimulus."