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US drawing up national broadband plan

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) April 9, 2009
Supporters of US presidential candidate Herbert Hoover famously pledged during the 1928 campaign that he would "put a chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard" if elected.

While Hoover failed, presiding instead over the Great Depression, President Barack Obama is determined to fulfil a similar campaign vow of his own but one with a 21st century twist -- to put broadband in every home.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) kicked off the ambitious project on Wednesday, launching a process to come up with a "National Broadband Plan" to bring high-speed Internet access to every corner of the United States.

Funding for the broadband "road map" was included in the nearly 800-billion-dollar economic stimulus package, which also allocated 7.2 billion dollars to extend broadband coverage to "underserved" rural areas.

The FCC is seeking input for the national broadband plan from consumers, industry, businesses, non-profits and federal, state and local governments and must report back to Congress by February 17, 2010.

The plan will look at such issues as broadband supply and demand, quality and affordability as well as "problems, threats or vulnerabilities" such as privacy and cybersecurity.

It will examine how to use broadband to advance civic participation in government, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency and education.

"Today, we commence a national dialogue on how we as a nation can make high-speed broadband available, affordable and easily useable to citizens and businesses throughout the land," said acting FCC chairman Michael Copps.

"This Commission has never, I believe, received a more serious charge than the one to spearhead development of a national broadband plan," said Copps, who is heading the FCC while Obama's appointee, veteran technology executive Julius Genachowski, awaits Senate confirmation.

"We have a long way to go to get high-speed, value-laden broadband out to all our citizens," Copps acknowledged, but he vowed to come up with a plan to make the United States "the world's broadband beacon."

The United States trails Japan, Sweden, South Korea, France, Germany and Canada in broadband quality and subscription rates per capita, according to rankings by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

One crucial question to be decided is speed.

Median US broadband speeds are less than 5.0 megabits per second (Mbps) -- capable of moving five million bits of data per second -- according to the ITIF, far slower than those of Japan (63 Mbps) and South Korea (49 Mbps).

The FCC presently defines broadband as 786 Kbps -- too slow for efficient video streaming, for example -- and the ITIF and other groups are seeking target speeds of between 10 Mbps and 50 Mbps.

Australia earlier this week announced plans to build a 30-billion-dollar government-controlled national broadband network offering speeds of up to 100 Mbps to 90 percent of homes and businesses and 12 Mbps to the rest.

The US telecom industry is wary of too much government intervention in the broadband plan, although some groups argue more regulation is needed.

"Any new strategy must take into account how past policies failed to deliver the open, competitive broadband marketplace Congress intended," said Derek Turner, research director of media reform organization Free Press.

"Under the last administration's wait-and-see approach, competition disappeared, speeds stagnated, prices went through the roof, and the open Internet was placed in jeopardy."

"We never depended solely on free market economics for universal delivery of affordable electricity and phone service, and there's no reason to expect that we can do so for high speed Internet access," said Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association.

Robert McDowell, a Republican-appointed member of the FCC, warned, however, against over-regulation.

"In order to attract investors to fund the buildout of new networks, we must not engage in rulemakings that produce whimsical regulatory arbitrage," he said in a statement. "Rather, we must allow market players to succeed or fail on their own merits and not due to the government picking winners and losers."

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