August 26, 2009 By Bill Schrier
On August 25th I had a chance to participate in a workshop at the Federal Communications Commission discussing what should be in the National Broadband Plan. The FCC is charged by the President and Congress to create that plan by February, 2010. To that end, they are conducting a series of workshops to gather input.
The workshops are the standard fare of a government sausage-making machine. The usual vaudeville performers with their usual songs-and-dances protecting their usual patches of the stage and their seats in the theater called the telecommunications market. There are very few representatives of city and county governments, but lots of representatives of "industry".
On the other hand, I'm heartened by the Obama administration's choices to lead the FCC. Julius Genachowski is the new FCC chair and is one of the primary authors of the broadband portion of the "stimulus act" (ARRA). Admiral Jamie Barnett is the new Chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He listened intently during the workshop, and the staff of that Bureau appears to be genuinely engaged and interested in this task.
These are all good signs that, with the National Broadband Plan, we'll not get the usual lowest-common-denominator beaurcratized pabulum, but something truly visionary - a roadmap to take the United States from its present second-world Internet infrastructure to an electronic network suitable for the remainder of the century.
In my mind - and this was the essence of my talk - that roadmap is simple: build a fiber optic network to every home and business in America. As that network is built, create a fourth-generation wireless network on top of it by placing radio towers at key points throughout the network. I'm sold on fiber optics because of its virtually limitless capacity. As electronics improve, new switches and routers can be replaced on a fiber network, driving it to ever higher speeds. Signals from multiple different competing service providers (Internet, television, video, music, security, telephone etc.) can ride this network, just like anyone's car or trucking company can ride the public highways.
Telephone and cable companies will oppose this vision tooth-and-nail. They have immense investments in existing copper-cable networks and will want to wring every last dollar of profit from those networks. But those copper cable networks are old and slow, literally dinosaurs in the world of fiber optics. South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Paris, Sweden, Amsterdam, see the value of fiber and are investing in both municipal and national networks. If we listen to the copper-wire-dinosaurs, the United States will continue to fall behind.
A fiber network has numerous advantages. I've already mentioned the potential to break the telephone and cable monopolies which grip our present electronic infrastructure. By fostering competition, we're not only going to be improving service, consumer choice and reducing prices, but we're being "capitalist" in the most fundamental meaning of the word.
Really high speed fiber networks have the potential to transform our world - literally. Homes and businesses will increasingly have high-definition television sets. By adding high-definition television cameras to them, along with a fiber network, every home becomes a video studio. Telecommuting, tele-education, tele-medicine, video telephony all become possible. Virtual classrooms from home, routine visits to the doctor, and video-calls with family all could improve our quality of life.
Furthermore, with true two-way, high-definition video a possibility, perhaps we can coax people out of their automobiles, to attend classes via video, to telecommute and conduct business at home, traveling less. This, in turn, means greater productivity, less time wasted in traffic jams, less consumption of precious gasoline, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less dependence on foreign oil. And that means improved homeland security.
This transformation simply echoes previous transformations in our history, where the telegraph allowed long-distance communications between cities or continents, the telephone allowed homes across the nation to be interconnected for voice, and the internet brought the web, e-mail and social networking into the lives of almost every American. We've done this before - and it has always changed America for the better, serving as an engine of economic development as well as making us more safe and secure. We've built national telegraph and telephone networks, and, more recently, the Internet. We've built national broadcasting networks for radio and television and cable television. We've constructed cellular telephone networks and public safety radio networks. We've built the national highway network and then the Interstate highway network. Sometimes we've built these networks with entirely public investment, sometimes with entirely private investment, and sometimes a combination of the two. Wise regulation and spectrum management by the FCC has often paved the way. And we can do it again, if the National Broadband Plan is innovative and visionary.
Will the FCC and the Obama administration have the vision, the innovation, the leadership and the guts to be this bold?