By the end of my interview with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, I found myself wondering if he had any idea how important his agency's role would be in this Internet era. After all, his office now touches just about everything of interest to tech and Internet enthusiasts, from national broadband speeds to wireless exclusivity contracts to regulating video content on the Internet and on television. We spoke, in the 25 minutes or so he had available, primarily about the National Broadband Plan, which is the office's 370-page announcement that it intends to bring the American broadband infrastructure, costs, and speed into the modern age.
Genachowski is a passionate guy who clearly believes that a fast, affordable, and solid broadband foundation is the key to solving all kinds of ills--from the digital divide to energy independence to health care reform (at least in the electronic records sense).
But the broadband plan isn't without controversy: critics charge that it doesn't go far enough to ensure competition in the ISP market--a market that frequently leaves consumers with two broadband ISP options at best, and at worst none at all. Television broadcasters and even fellow members of the FCC are concerned about provisions that would ask broadcasters to voluntarily give up excess spectrum that could be used to provide low-cost or free mobile broadband, or be re-auctioned off to help pay back the stations who gave it up.
And then there are those who complain that the plan doesn't go far enough: nationwide speed goals are too low (only 100 million households are targeted for 100Mbps speeds, whereas the rest of the country and rural America's goals are more like 4Mpbs, by 2020); it lacks provisions for open access or "unbundling" of the lines from the service providers; and it doesn't say much, if anything, about Net neutrality.
In our conversation, Genachowski seemed confident that, at a minimum, simply giving consumers access to data--how fast their broadband connections actually are, where there are dead spots, and what other ISPs around the country are charging--will prove to be a powerful tool in spurring competition (I tend to agree). He very strongly reiterated his commitment to a neutral and open Internet, which was reassuring, although he kind of punted on the question of whether would hamper his plan's stated goal of keeping copyright from overburdening innovation. Sadly, we ran out of time before we could talk about the provisions of the plan that call for open access for video set-top boxes, or about older issues like wireless exclusivity, or even about why we're still talking about that tawdry little Janet Jackson incident.
Then there's the question many of you asked: assuming the government gets moving on the broadband plan in a timely fashion (the Senate Commerce Committee canceled an oversight hearing today at which Genachowski was scheduled to testify on the plan), what will it mean for you? The broadband speed goals are set to be accomplished by 2020, when the rest of the world and hopefully we will have far surpassed a measly 100Mbps. Spectrum negotiations will probably take years and get caught up in inevitable lawsuits and horse trading. The biggest short-term benefits for us seem to be the actual data collection and transparency about pricing, speed, and dead zones.
And on that note, while I was in Washington, I also spoke with federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, who's in charge of trying to implement the portions of the plan that are under White House control. He asked me to put the question back to you. In the short term, say the next 90 days, what can the White House, Congress, and the FCC do to make a measurable difference in your broadband Internet experience? Put your thoughts in the comments below, and let's keep this conversation going!