FCC Member, Lessig Unveil U.S. Broadband Initiative

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U.S. Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan Adelstein and several high-profile technology executives and industry advocates on Tuesday launched an initiative to make broadband access a national priority in the U.S.

At the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, Adelstein and others unveiled InternetforEveryone.org, a movement aimed at fostering a public dialogue among U.S. citizens to advise the government on how to set a national policy.

In addition to Adelstein, industry luminaries on hand to support the effort included Stanford University law professor Larry Lessig and Google Chief Technology Evangelist Vint Cerf, one of TCP/IP's developers.

Broadband advocates have complained that the U.S. government has not made widespread broadband adoption among its citizens enough of a priority. U.S. residents lag behind those of several nations in purchasing broadband access, according to a recent report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Indeed, Adelstein, who characterized himself as "a frustrated policymaker in Washington," said a lack of a national broadband policy directly contributes to the U.S. falling behind other countries in its citizens' adoption of broadband. This puts the country at risk in lagging behind globally in other social, educational and economic endeavors, he said.

"The [U.S.] government has had a policy of benign neglect and we're falling faster and faster behind," he said in an interview following Tuesday's press conference.

Lessig, known for being an outspoken critic of government policy around the Internet, called the U.S. broadband situation "abysmal" and said lawmakers have allowed a "Neanderthal policy" to govern access to broadband for the past eight years.

While he said the private business sector has a central role in ensuring that people have access to broadband, the Internet touches so many parts of American life -- including social, cultural and personal interests -- that the government can no longer take a backseat to creating policy that fosters adoption among its citizens.

Internetforeveryone.org is based on four principles, said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press and one of those who launched the initiative on Tuesday.

Those principles are: to provide access to high-speed, world-class communications infrastructure to every home and business in America; to ensure that people have sizeable choice of broadband providers; to foster openness so users have the right to freedom of speech and commerce when using the Internet; and to promote innovation so the Internet can create jobs and foster enterpreneurship and economic growth.

To begin the discussion of how to form a national broadband policy, the initiative will hold four public forums across the U.S. to hear what average Americans have to say about the issue, Silver said.

There is currently no schedule for these forums; however, more information will eventually be posted on the initiative's Web site.

Some of the key problems surrounding giving everyone in the U.S. access to broadband is the price, which is cost-prohibitive for less affluent citizens; and lack of access to broadband in rural areas.

Adelstein said in an interview that it will take a combination of factors -- including the government freeing up more wireless spectrum and fostering competition among providers of broadband access -- to solve these problems.

To achieve this, lawmakers would do well to learn lessons from other countries -- including Sweden, Korea and Japan -- that have taken important steps to enact a broadband policy, he said.

When asked why InternetforEveryone.org is not making stronger recommendations to set up policy right away and is leaving it up to the public to help devise a plan, Adelstein said public consensus is crucial to spurring the government to take action.

"There's no want of proposals [for a national broadband policy], there is want of willingness and leadership to implement a policy," he said, noting that he himself has offered proposals for a national broadband policy. "What we need is this kind of movement -- a coalition that can bring together the public choice."

He said the FCC is eyeing a proposal to free up a 20 MHz wireless spectrum to be used for free wireless services; supporting such efforts is key to supporting a national broadband policy. The commission put out a request for comments on the proposal last week.

Indeed, Adelstein said the wireless realm provides the greatest opportunity right now to provide broadband access to everyone in the U.S., but more must be done to foster competition among companies that control the wireless spectrum.

For example, he said the U.S. missed a "golden opportunity" to improve the state of broadband access with the 700 MHz spectrum auction in March.

Incumbent telecom carriers Verizon and AT&T -- which face little competition -- won much of that spectrum at the auction. At the time, some called for the FCC to limit incumbent bidding in the auction.

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