FCC aims to close gap in broadband Web access
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After a decade of letting the market decide who gets high-speed Internet service and when they get it, the Federal Communications Commission is poised to take an active role in dictating the speed and the geography of broadband deployment.
Internet service providers are ready to fight back, warning the government against becoming too autocratic in its efforts to redraw the broadband map and rewrite the rules on network sharing, bandwidth restriction and other key issues.
At stake is at least $7.2 billion in federal stimulus money, and the hundreds of billions more in private investment, that will be spent to upgrade the nation's broadband infrastructure over the years to come, bringing high-speed Internet access to areas that lack it, and laying a new generation of high-capacity lines as bandwidth usage grows.
This month, the FCC began taking public comment on the issue (having already received thousands of comments), and soon is expected to publish rules explaining how Internet providers can apply for the billions of dollars in stimulus funds. The money eventually will be doled out through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service administration, disbursed independent of the long-term FCC planning project, commissioned through the $787 billion stimulus package.
"If we do our job well, this will be the most formative -- indeed transformative -- proceeding ever in the commission's history," interim FCC Chair Michael Copps said to an FCC audience two weeks ago, speaking of the road map that the FCC has been charged with drawing.
It's been more than a decade since high-speed broadband Internet hookups began replacing the screeching, 56-kilobit dial-up modems. In those 10 years, broadband service has become widely available in cities and on college campuses, but in underserved suburban and especially rural areas, broadband Internet remains elusive.
That's true in Pennsylvania, and it's true nationally. Critics of the "slow" deployment say the lack of broadband access prevents those pockets of America from fully realizing their potential in the realms of education, commerce and government accessibility. But the large Internet service providers say they're moving as fast as they can, spending tens of billions.
"Over the past year alone, the industry invested more than $60 billion in broadband infrastructure. In today's dollars, that far exceeds the amount of money spent annually to put a man on the moon or to build the U.S. interstate highway system," said Walter B. McCormick Jr., CEO of the USTelecom, in a statement.
Pennsylvania ranks right in the middle, 25th out of 50 states, in terms of the percentage of households that have access to high-speed Internet, according to The Children's Partnership.
"When I look at the bigger picture, I think it's critical for the commonwealth -- not just rural Pennsylvania," said Barry Denk, executive director of Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, as of 2008, 44 percent of households in rural counties have broadband service in their homes; the share is 56 percent in urban counties.
But is too much being made of the so-called "digital divide," the gap between areas that have high-speed access and those that don't? Even in areas where there are no cable and phone lines providing high-speed access, satellite Internet is an option. Advances in Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) and WiMAX semiconductors mean it's getting easier receive get Internet access on laptop computers.
Cell phone companies are working on new hand-held platforms that will allow people to have wireless broadband wherever they go. And improvements in cable modem technology will soon allow the Internet to be transmitted over standard video channels at a rate of 1 gigabyte per second, which would make it unnecessary to run brand new fiber-optic cable to every home.
On the other hand, the Communications Workers of America say the $7.2 billion in planned broadband subsidies is too little, calling for $25 billion in grants and tax breaks.
But the big ISPs, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, don't want to give away too much jurisdiction over their own networks by accepting the stimulus money.
"A lot of fundamental questions remain unanswered, such as what are the definitions of "broadband" of "unserved" or "underserved" communities, what role will the state play in the approval or distribution of the stimulus monies, what conditions would apply to the infrastructure deployment dollars," said Luc Miron, from the Governor's Office of Administration.
First Published April 19, 2009 12:00 am