Can the FCC fix America's crummy broadband network?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
March 22 2010 5:25 PM

Land of the Free, Home of Slow Internet

Can the FCC fix America's crummy broadband network?

Also in Slate, Chris Wilson questioned the wisdom of bringing high-speed Internet access to rural America.

(Continued from Page 1)

The FCC also wants to open up more wireless space for the Internet. A lot of the country's radio spectrum is now in the hands of TV broadcasters. That doesn't make much sense—it's obvious that our economy will increasingly depend more on multipurpose, mobile devices like the iPad than on single-purpose devices like televisions. Better wireless Internet could also conceivably serve as an incentive for wired Internet providers to create better plans—after all, why would you subscribe to a home broadband plan if you've got really great mobile broadband service? Broadcasters have indicated, though, that they'll oppose the FCC's efforts—and if there's one industry that knows how to whip up outrage, it's the TV business. Just wait till Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann join forces to oppose the government's evil plan to take away Grandma's TV.

The tough road that the FCC faces in freeing up spectrum might explain why the agency doesn't mention some even more far-reaching efforts to bring competition to the broadband market. For instance, observers have long argued that the best way to create faster, cheaper Internet service is to impose "open access" rules on Internet providers. These rules would force companies that build lines to your home to sell access on those lines to competitors—so that many companies will be able to bring service to your home. As Yochai Benkler, the co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, points out in the New York Times, many of the countries that have better service than the United States mandate such rules. "These countries realize that innovation happens in electronics and services—not in laying cable," Benkler writes.

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But open access doesn't seem to be on the horizon for the FCC—at least not yet. Instead, the National Broadband Plan outlines a series of smaller-bore initiatives to reduce the cost of laying new fiber-optic lines. Genachowski says that these will prove consequential. "There is no silver bullet to any of the challenges," he said. "Even though it's not that exciting to focus on some of the blood and guts of infrastructure, these end up becoming very important."

Another obstacle standing in the way of a landmark broadband makeover is the American consumer. Today about 65 percent of people in the United States who have access to broadband actually sign up for plans. If 35 percent of Americans don't want even 4 megabit lines, then why should companies spend a fortune building out 100 megabit lines? This question is particularly important in a time of stretched resources. America's communications infrastructure isn't so great, but neither are our highways, our schools, our health care, and dozens of other things. Our broadband needs will inevitably be weighed against these other resources—and some people are sure to wonder whether, given all our other obligations, the Internet is really worth the government's time, money and effort.

But that gets back to why I'm so excited about Genachowski's plan. Even if we don't get 100 megabit access for all, it's still amazing that we've got a federal official fighting for such a broad goal. Though we've known for at least 10 years that the Internet will be the major driving force in our economy, Genachowski is the first FCC chairman to make broadband the agency's top priority. That in itself is cause for optimism. "This is the FCC's agenda for the foreseeable future," Genachowski told me. "We want the innovations to happen here, we want the job creation to happen here, and we want to export these applications around the world. That's going to be an essential strategy for our economic success in the 21st century."

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