Broadband plan must be daring, comprehensive

Most agree that expanding access to broadband communications technology can transform the lives of Americans across the country. We know, for example, that broadband technology can enhance educational opportunities through distance learning and improve rural healthcare delivery through remote diagnostic medicine.  Yet, in spite of agreement on the need for a comprehensive national strategy to reach our unserved communities, there is a lack of consensus on the policy initiatives necessary to realize this goal.  

Last year, Congress charged the Federal Communications Commission with the responsibility for preparing the first-ever “National Broadband Plan” to identify the key steps needed to increase the availability and use of broadband technology and to close the digital divide. In February, the FCC will deliver its report to Congress following months of public hearings held across the country with academics, technology experts, small businesses and average Americans. For Congress, federal and state agencies, and private technology companies to find consensus on the steps necessary to make broadband available to all Americans, this report must be more than a “plan for a plan.”  

A national strategy for bringing broadband technology to every community in America must be daring and comprehensive. The FCC must establish goals for the deployment of broadband infrastructure and performance measures to track and assess progress, especially in light of the billions allocated for broadband in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Their report must also include recommendations on topics ranging from the availability of additional spectrum for wireless services to ways to encourage additional private investment and adoption of the technology by more Americans.

One key component of our national broadband strategy will be allocating additional wireless spectrum to fuel innovation and keep pace with surging demand for wireless services. Wireless technology offers advantages in reaching rural areas with smaller populations, but most experts agree that there is a looming shortage of spectrum available for future commercial use.  Finding additional spectrum for future needs must be a focus of the federal government, and the FCC’s report should include discussion of the options available to help us realize that goal and the challenges likely to be confronted.  There are no easy answers to our spectrum needs, but the FCC’s analysis must look broadly at all spectrum use by commercial entities and the federal government before reaching conclusions about particular spectrum that should be reallocated.

Another significant aspect of a comprehensive national broadband strategy will be identifying ways to encourage new investment in areas lacking the necessary infrastructure. The reality of our current fiscal situation limits the amount of federal funds available for construction of new broadband infrastructure and places particular importance on bold new ideas to generate private investment by communications providers of all sizes using all available technologies.

Finally, it would be a mistake to believe that the federal government can formulate and execute a comprehensive strategy to bring broadband technology to every American without the guidance and assistance of state and local governments. To be successful, our strategy must include a significant role for these partners, who are uniquely positioned to identify challenges presented by particular unserved and underserved areas. State and local governments can work effectively to develop public-private partnerships that provide new infrastructure and encourage individuals and groups to adopt the technology through initiatives like digital literacy programs for adults and electronic government. 

The FCC’s forthcoming report to Congress can be a catalyst for decisive action to bring the benefits of broadband technology to all Americans and to close the gap between the United States and other developed countries in the communications capabilities available to individuals and businesses. For that to happen, the report must itself be bold and comprehensive.  

Hutchison is the senior Republican member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.