NEW YORK--Federal Communications Commission commissioner Jonathan Adelstein joined tech policy pundits, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists Tuesday to launch a new initiative aimed at making broadband a priority in the U.S.
The group, which calls itself InternetforEveryone.org, officially launched at Free Press' Personal Democracy Forum here. The main purpose of the new initiative is to help organize public support for a national broadband policy.
Prominent figures in the tech world, including Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, as well as law professors Larry Lessig of Stanford and Tim Wu of Columbia were on hand with Brad Burnham of the venture capital firm Union Square Ventures and Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, to join Adelstein in becoming members of the group.
Adelstein, one of two Democratic commissioners on the FCC, has been a big proponent of a national broadband policy for some time. During his introduction, he admitted has been frustrated with the current administration's lack of focus on broadband. But he said he hopes this initiative will help provide a forum to allow the public's voice to be heard in Washington.
"We need to mobilize the public to make broadband an issue in D.C., so that broadband penetration and pricing rises to the top of the agenda," Adelstein said in an interview following the press conference. "It's important for us to make sure that the public's interests are served. We've already heard a lot from the cable and phone companies."
Broadband advocates have long complained that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in its ability to offer high-speed Internet service at affordable prices to all of its citizens.
Josh Silver of Free Press said during the press conference that the U.S. has slipped from 4th to 15th in the world in terms of broadband penetration. And he said that half the country doesn't subscribe to high-speed Internet. He and others in the group said it was time for a national policy framework to be established to ensure that government helps make broadband more accessible to people throughout the country.
But not everyone agrees that the U.S. is lagging in broadband or that a comprehensive national policy is even necessary. Verizon COO Denny Strigl said at the NxtComm trade show in Las Vegas said last week that it was a "myth" that the U.S. lagged behind other nations in high-speed Internet.
"It's time to put this myth to rest," Strigl said during a keynote speech. "What the communications industry has achieved in deploying broadband and mobile services is tremendous. And we've done this not through industrial policy, but through private investment delivering innovation. The benefits have rippled through the entire economy creating millions of high-tech jobs and billions of dollars in value."
Indeed, comparing the U.S. with other countries with much smaller geographies and populations is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. In much of the U.S., people have access to not just one broadband provider but two. And as Verizon deploys fiber directly to consumers' homes and AT&T upgrades its network to offer faster broadband and TV service to its customers, those companies have forced their cable competitors in those areas to increase speeds and in some places even lower prices.
So in many parts of the country, broadband competition is working. But the problem is that the competitive forces aren't working uniformly throughout the country. There are still pockets of the U.S., especially in rural areas, where broadband is only offered by one provider or by none at all. And prices per bit are still much higher than they are in other parts of the world.
"People have just accepted that bandwidth is something that American families will spend hundreds of dollars on per month," Columbia professor Tim Wu said. "People don't realize how much we pay for how little bandwidth we actually get."
Wu likened the broadband market to the energy market, saying bandwidth is a commodity controlled by a tiny cartel of phone companies and cable operators. He said that prices have been inflated and kept high, which has kept many people out of the broadband revolution.
"I agree that for most of the country, access to broadband is not the issue," he said in an interview. "But I'd say beyond that, the market has stalled. We need to make America a leader in broadband pricing and speeds. The attitude that it's just 'OK' to have access to DSL isn't good enough."
Members of the new "Internet for Everyone" initiative believe that a national broadband policy can help. That said, the group didn't announce support for any particular legislation nor is it backing a specific broadband policy proposal. But members of the group seem to agree that the reallocation of wireless spectrum should be a major component to any national policy.
Broadband advocates had hoped that the recent 700MHz spectrum auction, which reallocated spectrum that has been used for analog TV signals, would lay the foundation for a third national broadband provider. But at the conclusion of the FCC auction, it was incumbents, such as Verizon Communications, that came out the big winners in the auction, gobbling up key national licenses for spectrum.
"I think the commission missed a golden opportunity in the 700MHz spectrum auction to ensure there would be a third pipe into the home for broadband," Adelstein said in an interview.
The FCC is currently looking at freeing up more spectrum that could be used by new entrants to create new wireless broadband services, he added. One proposal on the table from a company called M2Z proposes that the FCC open up 25MHz of spectrum that could be used to build a free wireless network. Under the plan, the FCC would give the company access to spectrum for free. The company would build the network and fund the service through advertising. As part of the proposal, M2Z planned to give the FCC 5 percent of its gross revenue from the service.
The FCC originally dismissed the proposal, mostly because it asked the commission to allocate spectrum for free. But now the commission seems to be reconsidering it.
"Right now we are contemplating opening up about 20MHz of spectrum for free wireless broadband," Adelstein said in an interview. "There is a business plan on the table, so we will have to see what happens."
Another option for the FCC is to open up "white spaces", or the spectrum bands left vacant between broadcast TV channels.
Several companies, including Google and Microsoft, have been working on prototype devices that demonstrate that wireless devices can work within these bands without causing interference. But the broadcast TV industry has been opposed to any use of "white spaces." Still, broadband proponents see it as an important asset to be used in expanding the broadband market.
"Spectrum liberation in our time needs to be a priority for any national broadband policy," Wu said. "And the 'white space' spectrum is a good way to do that. It offers a ton of bandwidth."