FCC identifies roadblocks to broadband adoption

Several factors, including a lack of a broadband subsidy program at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, have contributed to gaps in broadband adoption in the U.S., a new report from an FCC task force said.

Several "critical gaps" in the nation's broadband efforts must be filled before all U.S. residents can get broadband, said the task force, working on a national broadband plan for the FCC. The task force report identified several often-mentioned factors for a lack of broadband adoption, including the cost of the service and a lack of deployment in some areas, but it also focused on some less obvious issues.

The task force suggested that broadband deployment and adoption programs should be included in the FCC's Universal Service Fund (USF) program, which now subsidizes primarily telephone service for rural areas and low-income U.S. residents. Part of the fund, with an annual budget of about US$7 billion, should be shifted to broadband, the task force said.

In addition, the task force recommended that the FCC begin looking for additional wireless spectrum for mobile broadband. Freeing up new spectrum can take several years, and a handful of studies have predicted a spectrum shortage by the mid-2010s due to growth in subscribers and use of bandwidth-heavy applications, said Ruth Milkman, chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

"We know there's a spectrum gap, and we know we need to act in the near term," she said.

The task force report also suggested that video and a convergence between television sets and computers will drive the demand for broadband. But the TV set-top-box market has seen relatively few innovations in recent years, with most cable subscribers leasing their set-top boxes from their providers, commission staff said. There may be ways for the FCC to encourage a retail set-top box market, the task force said.

Another roadblock to broadband adoption is a lack of information about broadband services, the task force said. It can be difficult for consumers to compare the performance of their broadband service to advertised speeds or compare the performance of different broadband providers, the report said.

There is "no shortage of issues" that the FCC should address in its national broadband plan, due Feb. 17, said Eric Carr, general manager of the FCC's Omnibus Broadband Initiative.

FCC members generally praised the task force's report, but Commissioner Michael Copps said he wanted to see a greater emphasis on civic engagement as a driver for broadband adoption. Task force members talked about the need for a "fact-based" look at broadband needs, but there are bigger issues as well, Copps said.

"This is an exercise that goes beyond metrics and beyond tangibles," Copps said. "I would urge you to look at the intangibles that are involved here. I want to see a little more heightened emphasis on the point of civic engagement ... and on the point of how this encourages interactivity among the citizens of this great country of ours."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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