FCC leader pursues expanded broadband Internet access

You've heard of universal health care and universal education. Now, the Federal Communications Commission wants to get the nation ready for universal broadband Internet access.

High-speed Web surfing for all was just one hot topic among several in a Friday question-and-answer session with Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski at the International Consumer Electronics Show inside the Las Vegas Convention Center. On top of discussing how to take broadband into every American household, Genachowski discussed Internet neutrality, the Fairness Doctrine and whether his agency is necessary in a digital world.

On broader broadband service, Genachowski said the commission has held more than 50 public hearings and workshops on a plan to promote universal, or "ubiquitous," access. It's an important effort, he said, because job openings these days often appear only online, and many of those jobs require some digital know-how.

"If we graduate students who don't have basic digital skills, we're not preparing them for our economy," Genachowski said. "In the 21st century, the concept of literacy needs to be extended to digital literacy so that our kids know how to participate in the new economy."

Commission officials expect to deliver a broadband-access plan in March. The initiative would look at why 35 percent of consumers who have access to broadband Internet connections don't buy the service, and investigate whether they lack money for or interest in it. The plan would also address deployment holes in areas without broadband infrastructure, and it would evaluate spectrum gaps that could emerge if demand for high-tech communications outstrips bandwidth and airwave supplies.

"In the move toward ubiquitous broadband, we're going to move toward unleashing spectrum, we're going to focus on having a vibrant media landscape that serves the public, we're going to focus on protecting and empowering consumers and families and on making sure that our first responders and public-safety communications networks are the 21st century networks that our country needs," Genachowski said.

Securing broadband service for all Americans would carry three benefits, Genachowski said. It would serve as an economic engine to drive innovation and productivity gains. It would yield a "bucket of societal opportunities" to promote "common goals" involving education, health care, energy and public safety. And it would foster civic engagement in a "21st century democracy," he said.

Broadband wasn't the only topic on attendees' minds.

One audience member submitted a question about the Fairness Doctrine, a retired commission policy that required broadcast-license holders to devote air time to contrasting views on topics salient to the public interest. Some Democratic federal lawmakers advocate reviving the doctrine to balance the abundance of conservative hosts on talk radio. But "the Fairness Doctrine is dead," Genachowski said.

Another audience member wanted to know whether the commission is doomed to irrelevance, given evolving technologies. Is the "scarcity rationale" behind the agency's radio-age genesis, when it was formed to regulate the limited public airwaves broadcasters used to reach consumers, relevant in a digital era?

Genachowski argued for the commission's continued importance. He noted that spectrum-supply crunches and scarcity problems occupy part of every day he spends on the job. What's more, promoting vibrant competition and the free flow of information is just as important in a digital world as it was in an analog one. And millions of Americans still get video and news over the air, so it's not yet time to declare broadcast-era rules obsolete.

"We're clearly in a time of transition when it comes to the media landscape," he said. "Newspapers are shutting down. Local TV news is under pressure. And the characteristics of usage are changing, too. The core goals in this area, which have been bipartisan goals of the FCC for decades, remain the same: making sure that we have an informed and educated citizenry, a vibrant marketplace of ideas, and that our kids are educated, informed and protected. How we serve those goals in the future won't be exactly the same way we served them in the past. The goals of universal broadband do change the equation and raise new questions."

Discussion moderator Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Electronics Association, also asked about a case snatched from the latest headlines: Friday's arguments before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in a case involving the commission's 2008 sanction of cable and Internet provider Comcast. The agency sanctioned Comcast after Comcast cut off traffic from file-sharing Web sites, and Comcast appealed the action. The case essentially weighs whether the Internet should be controlled by people who "own the pipes," or whether it should be open to everyone equally, Shapiro said.

Genachowski said he wasn't familiar with arguments in the case, but he said he wants to keep the Internet as unfettered and democratic as possible.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.