According to Congress, the National Broadband Plan must "seek to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability" at affordable prices. As if that's not enough, the Federal Communications Commission must suggest strategies to improve consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, healthcare, energy independence, education, job creation, economic growth, and a slew of related imperatives.
Some would suggest that the market will provide the answers. Those hoping for an entirely market-based solution to fill current gaps in penetration and adoption will hope in vain. As the Department of Justice recognized in comments filed prior to the broadband plan's release, and as media reform advocates have long recognized, there are problems with market structure and market failures affecting the U.S. broadband ecosystem.
Private investment alone, in the current regulatory climate, cannot overcome duopoly dominance and engender more robust competition to benefit consumers. Neither can market forces alone extend broadband to areas where there may be no business case to do so at present. Nor will such forces subsidize adoption for people who would benefit most from job training and job searching online, but who cannot afford broadband connections or computers.
The FCC cannot hope that allowing past and current telecom and media market failures to persist will somehow result in broadband success trickling down from entrenched incumbents. Therefore, the FCC's plan must include several key components.
The plan must reform universal service to promote efficient broadband deployment and adoption with the aim of closing digital divides that make connections more costly and less appealing to people in under-served rural and urban areas.
It should also revise special access and spectrum allocation policies to eliminate broadband bottlenecks that arise from persistent monopoly pricing for "middle mile" connections and inefficient use of auctioned spectrum where unlicensed use leads to greater gains.
In addition, the plan should strengthen wireline and wireless broadband consumer protection rules to require greater accuracy and transparency in disclosures about broadband speed, performance, and prices both to prospective and existing customers.
Finally, the plan needs to preserve the open Internet and promote interoperability for handhelds, set-top boxes, and other devices so that broadband users retain freedom to access content and applications of their choice and gain flexibility to switch service providers.
Matt Wood is associate director of the non-profit Media Access Project.
See other articles in this Point/Counterpoint series:
U.S. broadband plan needs apps, not just fast pipes
High fiber diet needed for U.S. broadband plan