FCC broadband plan appears off to great start

In meeting that challenge, Congress has tasked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a national broadband plan by Feb. 17. It is difficult to understate the importance of this task because broadband — like the railroads, the telephone, rural electrification and interstate highways before it — will help restore America’s economic well-being and open doors of opportunity for all Americans. It is part of the answer to nearly every challenge confronting us, including rising unemployment, declines in education, energy dependence and the degradation of our environment.

As the FCC develops its national broadband plan — and it appears the agency is off to a great start with unprecedented opportunities for public input — it is important that the commissioners keep in mind three issues of significance in this debate: making the best use of our spectrum resources, driving broadband adoption and maintaining an open Internet.

Spectrum is increasingly becoming a very valuable resource, and we need to make sure it is being used efficiently. That is why I have introduced legislation with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and several other colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee to direct the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) to report back to Congress with an inventory of the spectrum they manage and how it is being used. This inventory would instruct us on how spectrum is being used today and serve as an invaluable tool on how best to use spectrum in the future.

No broadband plan would be complete without considering how spectrum will contribute to building out broadband in rural communities. Our legislation, which was reported unanimously out of the Commerce Committee earlier this year, is a good place to start that discussion.

The latest trend in broadband adoption is encouraging, but nowhere near where we want to be. The most recent survey data shows that home broadband adoption stands at 63 percent of all American adults earlier this year, up from 55 percent from the previous year. In fact, there was growth in nearly all groups, including lower-income Americans. Broadband adoption by Americans in households with annual incomes of less than $20,000 grew from 25 percent in 2008 to 35 percent this year. In households with annual income between $20,000 and $30,000, broadband penetration grew from 42 percent to 53 percent. Among older Americans, it grew from 51 percent to 60 percent. And in rural America, it grew from 38 percent to 46 percent. But the national broadband plan that the FCC sends to Capitol Hill early next year needs to focus on making sure that the benefits of broadband are available to all Americans. The Commission needs to take a hard look not only at where broadband is not available, but also how we can make broadband affordable and attractive enough for Americans everywhere to use it.

Finally, any national plan for broadband must consider how to keep the Internet open and non-discriminatory. My position on net neutrality is well known.

I have consistently maintained that net neutrality principles are crucial to building a more modern and fair Information Society and that our economic and political future is tied up in a free and open Internet, available to all Americans. That involves making sure the content of the Internet flows freely. In fact, the free flow of information on the Internet has never been more important. I don’t want to see a prescriptive, heavy-handed bureaucratic approach to how network providers are permitted to serve subscribers. But we have to set the rules of the road and protect the innovative world of a free and open Internet.

Our subcommittee will hold an oversight hearing later this fall to check on the FCC’s progress in developing the national broadband plan. I am certainly encouraged, however, in the FCC’s efforts thus far, under the leadership of its new chairman, Julius Genachowski. The FCC is still in the early stages of developing its plan, but Chairman Genachowski clearly understands that broadband will serve as an enduring engine of economic growth for our nation and improve the lives of all Americans.

Kerry is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and chairman of the Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee.