What to Expect at Tuesday's FCC National Broadband Plan Presentation to Congress
After months of planning, the FCC is set to present details about the nation's first National Broadband Plan before Congress on Tuesday morning, a day ahead of schedule.
While objectives of the sweeping program aimed at providing 100 million Americans with high speed 100 megabits per second (Mbps) broadband connections for Internet access were revealed last month by FCC Chair Julius Genachowski, details for implementation are expected on Tuesday.
Bruce Mehlman, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy and co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance in Washington, D.C., spoke with TechNewsDaily and cautioned people to keep their expectations in check.
"We have had months of thorough policy idea gathering, outreach and trial balloon floating leading up to it. And there will be months of discussion, negotiation, job owning and congressional hearings following it," Mehlman said. "So it is a milestone, but it is part of a longer process of getting broadband right in America."
Mehlman has been a national broadband proponent for a decade. He was a telecommunications policy counsel for Cisco Systems during the launch of broadband in 1999; a technology adviser to the Bush administration in 2003; and he is currently a leader for the promotion of universal broadband through the Internet Innovation Alliance, a coalition of business and non-profit organizations.
Mehlman said the timing is right for a national broadband program. "We feel that we've got more momentum," he said, "more government mind share, more social circumstance demanding more broadband penetration, and a greater public enthusiasm for this kind of activity than I have ever seen."
The National Broadband Plan will address both high speed Internet access for all Americans and broadband adoption rates. The latter is the critical component of the plan, according to Mehlman.
"There is that very stubborn 37 percent of the country that has not signed up for broadband and that will require harder-to-finance efforts like digital literacy," he said. "Some segments of the population like my 92-year old grandmother are not going to sign up for broadband. We're never going to close that gap."
Mehlman said he thinks it is possible to reach 100 percent broadband adoption, but that it will take time. The first generation of broadband users rely on fast Internet for things like streaming video and online gaming, but older generations may respond to different benefits from broadband, such as video phones.
Food, shelter and high speed Internet?
Mehlman expects satisfactory answers to some questions about the National Broadband Plan, but warns that other questions may be answered during tomorrow's unveiling.
Investors have raised the question, "Does government get it?" Mehlman said. "Are these policies that encourage investment or are these policies that don't encourage investment? I'm expecting policies that encourage investment, but we're going to have to see. That's why I think the FCC won't raise net neutrality at this. If they make this all about net neutrality then they're discouraging investment that will undermine their professed goals."
Taxpayers want to know how much more tax payer dollars the FCC will seek and how that money will be spent. Mehlman expects the plan to include a digital literacy program, computer subsidies and wiring people in the most rural areas — all of which are programs that cost a lot of money.
The cost question is one that will repeatedly crop up, Mehlman said. "What do you want to subsidize, for whom? [And] is there a food stamp equivalent for broadband service?"
Perhaps. At the Digital Inclusion Summit earlier this week, the FCC said the National Broadband Plan will ask the government to "consider use of spectrum for a free or very low cost wireless broadband service."
Traditional TV versus Internet TV
Another question is whether there is enough digital bandwidth necessary for the FCC's plan. Research firm In-Stat said that by the end of 2009, there were 24 million web-enabled devices in operation in the U.S., which is expected to grow to 102 million by 2013, more than a four-fold increase.
Wireless providers are also clamoring for more bandwidth, Mehlman said. In response, the FCC may request that $50 billion of spectrum from TV broadcasters be auctioned off to wireless providers to provide more spectrum or bandwidth for mobile devices, a demand that will increase over the next decade.
American life in 10 years
While Tuesday's presentation may not cause shock waves, broadband deployment and adoption over the next decade could lead to major changes in Americans' digital habits.
Video, for example, will become more ubiquitous, Mehlman predicts. Also, "voice video, data entertainment will truly be Internet-enabled services. I think the nation will have realized meaningful gains in energy efficiency and improvements in both health care quality and cost containment thanks to information technology use."
Regarding tomorrow, Mehlman said he's eager to see what's going to happen, but doesn't expect many surprises.
"Just like technology is fun because you never know where it's going to go, politics is fun because you never know where it's going to go. Politics and technology [together] are doubly fun," he said.