FCC Still Looking for Broadband Ideas

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is still looking for ideas on how to bring broadband to all corners of the U.S. and to increase subscriber numbers, said the director of the agency's broadband project.

The FCC is about midway through a year-long effort to create a national broadband plan, and Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC's omnibus broadband initiative, said Tuesday he hopes he hasn't heard all the good ideas yet. "There's a lot of capacity for us to hear your good ideas," Levin said during a broadband policy discussion hosted by the Media and Democracy Coalition and OneWebDay.

The U.S. Congress, in legislation passed early this year, required the FCC to create a national broadband plan, with a goal of providing universal broadband. Getting to universal broadband in the U.S. will take a coordinated effort by many groups, Levin said.

"It ain't going to be done just at the FCC," Levin said. "There's no way in the world that those of us who are blessed to have the opportunity to work on this full time can actually answer the tough questions."

Levin, speaking mainly to broadband activists, said it's more important than ever to bring broadband to parts of the country that don't have it. More than three quarters of U.S. companies now accept resumes only online, he said, and a recent survey found that 68 percent of high school students use the Internet as their primary tool for researching assignments.

"What does that mean for the kids who aren't online?" he asked. "How can they compete? The cost of digital exclusion is growing."

The huge growth and success of the Internet creates some challenges, Levin added. Many new Internet users will access the Web through a wireless device, but that means the U.S. government needs to find additional wireless spectrum, he said. "We can have a fantastic plan for broadband in America in the year 2020, and if there's not ... enough spectrum being utilized, it's unlikely to be successful," he added.

Wireless Internet has great potential, added Susannah Fox, associate director for digital strategy at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. In an April survey, Pew found that 56 percent of all U.S. adults had accessed the Internet through wireless devices, including laptops, smartphones and game consoles.

In a recent survey, Pew found that 63 percent of all U.S. adults had broadband in their homes, compared to just 46 percent of black adults. But the difference in the numbers disappeared when Pew looked at wireless Internet users, she said.

While some speakers at the event talked about ways to build broadband networks, Amalia Deloney, a broad member at the Media and Democracy Coalition, focused on Internet education. Many people still not connected to broadband haven't learned basic computer skills, she said. Schools need to focus more on digital literacy, she added.

"It's about knowing how to use a computer," Deloney said. "It's about knowing how to use e-mail."

Byte Back, a computer and job training facility in Washington, D.C., needs more volunteers to help homeless and low-income people learn to use computers and the Internet, added Kelley Ellsworth, the executive director there. Even after expanding twice in recent years, Byte Back still has a waiting list, she said.

"There are entire sections of this city that are on the other side of the digital divide," she added.

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