The FCC is best known for colossal screw-ups, like America's cellular service. News that the Commission is interested in creating national broadband policy brings a mix of dread--and hope.
"If we do our job well," Interim FCC chair Michael Copps said in announcing the FCC's intent to improve broadband, "this will be the most formative--indeed transformative--proceeding ever in the Commission's history."
That, it should be added, could be for the better or worse. The FCC has traditionally been a lapdog for the businesses it is supposed to be regulating, the public be damned.
Broadcasters provably do not know what is best for broadcasting, for example. The Commission totally sold out consumers to the cellular carriers, giving us wireless service that is a laughingstock among the world's industrialized nations.
Our broadband access is no better, with Americans' use and access steadily falling as compared to other industrialized nations. Our government and the carriers have not served us well in building a broadband America.
Now, the FCC has been given $7.2 billion of stimulus money to bring broadband access to every American. I think we should be very afraid. Unless the FCC vastly improves its game, this is going to be a sinkhole for your, and my, dollars.
The FCC is required to submit a plan to Congress by next Feb. 17 that will bring broadband to all Americans at affordable prices. Already, the carriers are lining up to protect the status quo--a situation that already is not working.
Now is the time for American consumers and especially businesses (and especially small businesses) to tell the FCC and Congress what they need from broadband to build their businesses and create new jobs.
I am a great believer in the concept of the common carrier, which today translates into net neutrality. Simply put, companies that provide broadband plumbing should not be allowed to have an interest in the content that uses the pipeline. Nor should it be allowable to discriminate among different types of content, except to the extent the Commission determines it to be in the public interest.
A truly national broadband policy requires the same infrastructure to be available as widely as possible. I will not wade into issues like the minimum acceptable bandwidth that should be offered outside big cities, but I will say that the smallest places should have the same service levels as the largest cities.
Network reliability is a national security issue and should be treated as such. Keeping this network running in all circumstances has become almost as important as a reliable electrical grid, which itself has been compromised by potential enemies like the Chinese and Russians.
It can no longer private industry that has primary responsibility to keep our broadband networks up and running. The government needs to play a larger role, given the stakes involved. A nationwide outage, particularly a prolonged one, would have incredible consequences. There needs to be a major investment in network redundancy and security.
The FCC needs to constantly push for ever-higher broadband capacity that can be offered to customers at low prices, regardless of location or use. This will require some subsidies, but has the potential to be a great economic stimulus.
All this, however, presumes that the FCC can do its job effectively and efficiently. That is not a given, and national broadband is too important for governmental screwing-up as usual.