Wake-Up Call for Broadband Plan

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It’s wake-up time for the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband plan, and agency chairman Julius Genachowski last week asked cable providers and other network operators to volunteer to offer reduced-cost basic broadband to help spur adoption.

Genachowski suggested that the commission might sound like it is going over old ground with the proposal, but there is a new urgency for the FCC to start turning data and input into policy.

“It’s OK if it reminds people a little bit of Groundhog Day,” he said. “At some level, it can feel like elements we’ve heard before.”

In the movie, he said, there is a moment when “the protagonist learns the lessons that he is going to learn and moves on to apply they wisdom he has attained.”

That moment is arriving for the broadband team, he said.

That wisdom includes encouraging some public-interest sacrifice on broadband providers’ part, he suggested.

At the FCC’s broadband-update meeting, the chairman praised a new bill that would create a pilot program for extending the FCC’s telephone lifeline program (part of the Universal Service Fund) to broadband, but said it would be a “great” next step for the industry to offer a low-cost service on its own.

“Another step forward from a similar spirit would be for broadband providers to take the initiative and design an affordable new offering for low-income households.”

He said that providers would have to figure out how best to do that, but said that as part of a national commitment, “it would be great to see providers offer a very basic broadband service to consumers for whom affordability is the most significant barrier. I hope this is one of the ways in which private industry can step up to the plate and help address our national challenge of broadband adoption.”

Genachowski made it clear last week that the national broadband plan (technically, the Omnibus Broadband Initiative) would have to incentivize broadband investment and competition. He also said there could be a role for industry to step up, not because there was return on investment, but to further the public’s interest in ubiquitous broadband.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association had no comment on the suggestion, but it has already volunteered its own low-cost pilot program targeted at helping the next generation of broadband adopters — kids — a point the chairman also made last week.

Genachowski, who said he had begun his day at a school where kids were using broadband, noted during the meeting the cable industry’s Adoption-Plus proposal to provide a 50% discount to low-income homes with middle school kids.

“The cable industry stepped forward with a significant program for bringing broadband to students from households that may be unable to afford it otherwise,” the chairman said. He called it an “important program,” saying he commended it and hoped others in the private sector would step up.