High-speed Internet access is so important to the welfare of U.S. consumers that America can't afford not to offer it — free of charge — to anybody who wants it, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin says.
"There's a social obligation in making sure everybody can participate in the next generation of broadband services because, increasingly, that's what people want," he says.
Martin hopes to use a chunk of wireless airwaves due to hit the auction block next year to help turn his vision into reality. Some cellphone operators are objecting.
As FCC chairman, Martin is responsible for protecting the interests of U.S. consumers. The FCC has regulatory sway over a broad swath of U.S. business, including cable and broadcast TV, radio, telecommunications and wireless. Martin sat down with USA TODAY to talk about some of the biggest consumer issues facing America. Broadband Internet access is at the top of his list.
"More and more people expect and demand to have access to the Internet and new wireless technologies," Martin says. "It is important that the (FCC) try to find new ways to address" those needs.
The way Martin sees it, broadband is quickly becoming what copper phone lines were for decades: the main means of communication for millions of Americans.
As people turn to the Internet for work, play, telemedicine, education and more, Martin says, it's incumbent on U.S. regulators to make sure no one gets left behind. Ditto for cutting-edge wireless technologies, which have the ability to deliver a circus of advanced new services, including the mobile Web.
The slow lane
Consumers living in rural areas are one of Martin's biggest concerns. In these areas, he says, dial-up and satellite-based Internet still rule. Owing to technical limitations, they don't offer enough speed to handle advanced, interactive services.
People who live in densely populated areas, on the other hand, can pick from an array of high-speed options, including DSL and cable modem services.
No matter where, Martin says, he worries about availability and cost of high-speed services. Broadband runs about $40 a month, on average, though you'll pay a lot more for faster speeds.
Only 38% of rural households are broadband customers, according to a Communications Workers of America report. For urban and suburban areas, the numbers are much higher: 57% and 60%, respectively.
Cost is a big factor, according to the report. Among households with incomes of $100,000 or more, 85% subscribe. The figure drops to 25% for households with incomes of less than $20,000.
Martin wants to use a block of wireless spectrum to help bridge the gap. By attaching a "free broadband" condition to the sale of the spectrum, known as AWS-3 (for advanced wireless services-3), Martin thinks he can help drive broadband adoption in rural areas in particular. Only 25% of network capacity would have to be reserved for free broadband. The rest could be used to provide premium broadband services.
Some cellphone providers are howling, none louder than T-Mobile. The company paid $4 billion two years ago to buy AWS-1 spectrum, which abuts the AWS-3 spectrum.
While the FCC's goal of providing broadband alternatives for rural customers is "noble," the approach would cause service disruptions for T-Mobile's data customers, says Cole Brodman, T-Mobile's chief technology officer.
"The FCC has an obligation to make sure that their spectrum policy allows for people who bought spectrum to be protected," he says.
Milo Medin, founder and chairman of M2Z, a start-up that first proposed the "free broadband" idea and plans to bid for the spectrum, says T-Mobile's problem is self-inflicted. He says T-Mobile is using handset "filters" and antennas that "read" signals in the adjoining AWS-3 zone, which could result in interference problems.
Brodman counters that the issue isn't that simple. If T-Mobile doesn't prevail, he says, the company would have to "work it out" with the AWS-3 winner or perhaps bid on the spectrum itself.
Martin says FCC engineers are studying the interference issue.
As for the high cost of broadband generally, Martin says he'd like to find a way to use a very old federal subsidy — the universal service fund — to ease costs for lower-income people. The fund, currently about $6 billion a year, is used to help keep basic phone service cheap. Rural phone companies, which use that money to help offset their costs, would likely resist such a plan.
Martin says it's just common sense. With so many cutting the cord and going wireless, it's far more important "to make sure we're spending that money … in a way that better reflects the actual usage habits of Americans today."