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A Blueprint for Wheeler's FCC

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On Thursday, the new Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler will make his first visit to California to speak at a town hall-style event in Oakland, on the heels of several FCC commissioners speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show, one of the tech industries yearly gatherings. In anticipation of that event, here are three items Wheeler should consider to help improve digital literacy and high-speed Internet access in California and throughout the United States.

First, the FCC Chairman's top priority should be to continue enabling competition throughout the "ecosystem" that makes up the Internet -- all the companies that build networks, create apps and offer services on the Internet. Competition is the engine that fuels Silicon Valley, and it has quickened the pace of innovation in California. While the rivalries between Silicon Valley giants like Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Apple are well known, no less important is the rivalry among Internet providers who compete to give customers the best possible service in order to stay ahead of their counterparts. These providers offer the familiar services of voice, video, chat and data and use a variety of methods to do so -- over fiber-optic, cable, satellite and fixed and mobile wireless networks -- which, along with the Internet content companies, all compete to be our favored portal to the digital world.

While we famously know of Moore's Law and the rapid pace in which innovation revolutionizes tech, we also know that it is almost impossible for regulations to keep up. That is why purely a focus on regulations designed for past industries, such as the copper-based, monopoly-era telephone system, could do serious harm to the dynamism of Internet-based economy in California. The FCC should shift its focus under Wheeler to tackling issues that are more manageable and would result in immediate gains, such as digital literacy.

Second, while it may appear that everyone in Silicon Valley is online, seemingly almost 24/7, there are many who remain technologically disenfranchised in tech's own backyard. Tens of millions of Americans are living without the digital literacy skills they will need for the future. In what seems like basic skills to many of us, these "digitally illiterate" Americans cannot or do not know how to send email, search for jobs online, or video chat with friends and family.

Digital literacy efforts can give Americans the ability to navigate the Internet. My company, TRAIL, for example, has created an online application that teaches people these critical online skills. Schools are joining these types of efforts, supported by organizations like Code.org, to put more emphasis on STEM subjects such as computer programming and web development -- skills increasingly in demand in our high-tech economy.

To bridge the digital divide, we need to devote more resources toward improving digital literacy. A recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report found that the leading reason for why people do not use a broadband connect at home is that people saw the Internet as irrelevant in their daily lives. According to Pew, 34 percent find the Internet is just not relevant. This finding underscores that all stakeholders and community leaders should come together to strengthen digital literacy so that Americans can realize the full importance of the Internet today, as we all very much do here in California.

Finally, along with empowering Americans with digital literacy skills and encouraging them to get online, we can do more to build our nation's broadband infrastructure to the remaining places that do not have it. As more Americans go online, companies are investing heavily in this growing sector. The Progressive Policy Institute has found that six broadband companies invested over $50 billion in 2013 alone to improve our country's networks, making them faster and more widespread. Fortifying these broadband resources boosts our economy and creates jobs.

Robust high-speed Internet helped jumpstart the app economy, which the Progressive Policy Institute has calculated as supporting 750,000 jobs around the country. With more broadband at their disposal, innovators throughout the United States will be able to come up with ideas to take advantage of our increasing connectivity.

As we move into a new year, an election year, and a new era at the FCC, it is vital that we move our national broadband policy in the right direction. It is also critical that a national digital literacy policy be adopted, with an agenda that enables growth and innovation in California and nationwide.

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