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Third Way Blind: Will the FCC's Regulatory Agenda Deliver Us to Our Broadband Future?

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With the recent release of the Federal Communications Commission's Notice of Inquiry on a "Framework for Broadband Internet Services," Chairman Julius Genachowski declared that he "believe[s] firmly and deeply in the benefits of a free marketplace of ideas and its potential to produce the best answers to hard questions, as long as all keep open minds. "

The Chairman's optimism may wane as the contentious dispute over Internet regulation plays out over the months and years to come. And for all the talk, I wonder whether the FCC genuinely plans to keep an open mind as it tries to reclassify broadband services.

By my estimation, a critical voice in the "net neutrality" and reclassification debate has gone missing: that of the American consumer. When groups like Free Press and Color of Change, which claim a combined membership of 2.6 million people, proclaim they are "the voice" of the American people, I tend to be a little skeptical. FP and CoC members are fortunate - they are already online and engaged. But who speaks for the more than 100 million Americans who are not even online at home? These consumers - who need broadband the most - seem conspicuously absent from discussions about our digital future, particularly since many of those discussions - especially the ones the Commission seems most receptive to - are occurring online.

There is a truly disturbing trend afoot: when representatives of the digitally disenfranchised speak out, they tend to be ignored or have their opinions devalued by those who have a different agenda and end game in mind. Century-old organizations like the National Urban League, and decades-old groups like the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council and the League of United Latin American Citizens have been avid champions of digital equality - speaking for the communities that are not actively represented online - but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears at the Commission. Since last year, these groups, along with several other civil rights groups, labor organizations and groups of elected officials, have encouraged the FCC to take a closer look at the ways its proposed policies would impact low-income consumers, first-time users of the Internet and small business owners. Yet the Commission has been decidedly silent in answering their concerns. So much for keeping an open mind...

Just last week, several prominent organizations, including the Communications Workers of American, the AFL-CIO and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wrote a letter to Congress seeking expedited legislation to define the scope of the FCC's authority to regulate the Internet. These organizations, which have taken an active stake in the future of Internet engagement for quite some time now, felt the need to reach out to members of Congress who may be more receptive than members of the FCC about their legitimate concerns for the impact that reclassification and the economic "non-discrimination" principle of the Commission's proposed "net neutrality" rules would have on low-income populations and communities of color. Yet and still, despite their concerns, the Commission continues to plow ahead.

The Commission would do well to focus its attention on what, by any measure, should be the top issue on its agenda: securing universal broadband adoption. By the Commission's own admission in a report released earlier this year, upwards of 92% of Americans have access to broadband services - meaning they could get online if they so choose. Yet of that number, only 65% actually adopt and use the services available to them.

As I've said many times before, our broadband problem is one of value - many people do not find it relevant enough to justify the costs of using the services. That hurdle cannot be regulated away. Not by a Title I, Title II or "Third Way" approach. The best role of the Commission should be in creating new avenues for increased digital literacy efforts and an enhanced understanding of the value proposition of broadband. Maybe, if the Commission was willing to keep an open institutional mind, it could see far enough beyond its regulatory agenda to address the digital problem of our generation: getting all Americans alone.

Here's to hoping.

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