Next month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is scheduled to present its National Broadband Plan to Congress and the stakes could not be higher. Broadband opens doors that allow for extraordinary opportunity -- opportunity that should be available to all Americans at an affordable price.
As we anxiously await the details, our society prepares to undergo tremendous structural changes in how vital government services are delivered. These services are a lifeline, particularly for our underclass. America's low-income communities cannot afford to be further disadvantaged as a result of a lack of the benefits that the digital future promises (education, entertainment, healthcare) due to the rising price of Broadband.
I share the FCC's commitment to equal rights for Internet users, but I am genuinely concerned about the unintended consequences that well-intentioned net neutrality policies could have on America's underclass. For many families, the brutal recession that we continue to battle has already pushed the dream of high-speed Internet access out of reach. Implementing new network neutrality regulations that may not allocate costs in a fair or equitable manner, particularly in these times of economic uncertainty, is of serious concern.
Assuming that we all agree with President Obama on the importance of universal broadband in our society, the required cost to achieve such must be considered. There are many technologies available to wire the country: cable, fiber optic, wireless, satellite, but without the necessary infrastructure in place, we can't get wire to everyone. From the desperately poor in our inner cities (places like South Central or Detroit) to the isolated poor and rural locations like the Ozarks, hundreds of billions of dollars in new investment are needed to change the status of our un-served and underserved Americans.
More than $100 billion has already been spent to deploy high-speed systems across America. But the FCC has estimated that $350 billion is necessary to achieve universal broadband access. As such, the focus of the FCC should be on speeding this process, either through federal programs or by incentivizing the investment of private companies.
Throughout this process, we must also strive to ensure that access remains affordable. To achieve this, I see one logical solution -- to have the build-out in these communities financed in part by agreements between the companies paying to lay the wires and the companies that will use those links to sell services.
Largely missing the point, proposals for new "neutrality" rules do nothing to help us realize these important goals. Instead, it is widely thought that new net neutrality regulations will reduce much needed investment in infrastructure, thus causing broadband to become less affordable and accessible to underserved and un-served populations.
Others who have come to the same conclusion include Democratic Governors Beverly Perdue of North Carolina and Mike Beebe of Arkansas. Beebe, whose state includes large numbers of desperately poor in both rural and urban areas, wrote to the FCC last October to express concern that Net neutrality rules would hurt his efforts to expand high-speed service in Arkansas.
When Oklahoma's Democratic Governor Brad Henry spoke out on this issue he encouraged the FCC to look at what he's done as Governor. As he put it, the best way to wire Oklahoma is through its model of "light or no regulation for landline, broadband and wireless services."
Additionally, certain members of the Congressional Black Caucus recently called on the FCC to reiterate, not repudiate, its historic commitment to the principles that have fostered an Internet open to all: competition, private investment and a restrained regulatory approach.
As the FCC considers President Obama's charge to create universal broadband access, it is important to remember that deploying the access is only part of the solution. Making this access affordable is equally important.
For all Americans, the stakes are high. For our minority and low-income communities, the stakes are even higher. If federal policy remains focused on encouraging broadband roll-out and allowing financing arrangements that make access more affordable, the possibilities will be limitless. That's a dream we all share.
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