Since Julius Genachowski became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission last year, his main priority has been overhauling the government's strategy for expanding high-speed Internet access.
Genachowski, who has been an executive and investor in technology companies, argues that people who lack fast Internet connectivity have fewer economic opportunities. He also says the entire nation needs faster access in order to remain competitive with other countries for digital-age jobs and investment.
As the FCC's broadband plan was being finished before its delivery to Congress, Genachowski, 47, discussed his goals in an interview with The Associated Press.
AP: What's more important? Getting broadband to people who don't yet have it, or raising the speeds for people who do? Can you do both at once?
Genachowski: We have to do it all. It's like saying about electricity, what's more important — getting it to our factories or getting it to rural America?
Getting consumers information
AP: What can the government do? How can it stimulate the growth of broadband and increase speeds?
Genachowski: To me, broadband is an infrastructure challenge that's very akin to what we've faced in the past with telephones and electricity (which got government subsidies).
It's not hard to understand why (the Internet) buildout in rural America has been slower than in urban America. The less dense the population, the harder the economic case is and we know that for millions of Americans, broadband is just not built out and so there, government has to find a way (to encourage it) ...
One of the core elements for promoting competition in the plan will be consumer transparency. Consumers are confused about their broadband options. People don't know what speeds they get. They don't understand the bundles.
The plan will recommend a series of steps to make sure consumers have the information they need to make the market work ... There's a pretty big gap between advertised speeds and actual speeds. One of the things that the plan will recommend is transparency and disclosure around actual speeds so that consumers know what they are getting, can look at different choices ... Better information on the part of consumers can create incentives for competitors to increase their speeds.
AP: Why does the country need faster broadband? Why isn't my home connection fast enough?
Genachowski: Some of the applications that we can already envision, that we already know have real value, require more bandwidth than what people typically have. Whether it's remote diagnostics, remote tutoring and teaching ...
(But more broadly), to make sure that the U.S. is the center for innovation on broadband applications and technologies for the next decade. One of the studies that I've seen that keeps me up at night is the one (by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) that measures 40 industrialized countries on several criteria ... It said the U.S. is sixth in the world on ability to innovate and compete.
I don't think six is good enough ... But the thing about the study that's very scary, it ranked the U.S. 40th out of 40 countries in rate of change in capacity for innovation. The No. 6 is concerning enough. But the 40, that's the canary in the coal mine ... We're moving in the wrong direction from a global competitiveness perspective on innovation and competition ...
One of the main things we can do to change that is make sure we have a world-class broadband infrastructure in the United States that has us being the place where innovators will want to go to innovate.
So why did we recommend the goal of 100 megabits to 100 million households? Because that will make us the largest market in the world for high-speed Internet. And it will mean that if you're an innovator from any country in the world, you will want to come here to develop and launch your innovation.
I'm a complete optimist about the ability of the U.S. to lead globally when it comes to innovation and technology. But I don't believe it's inevitable if we don't take these kinds of studies seriously and say OK, "What do we need to do to create the infrastructure and the climate and the incentives for innovation to happen here in the U.S.?"
'Looming spectrum crunch'
AP: Why does your plan call for letting broadcasters share in the proceeds from an auction in which some of their wireless spectrum, which they received for free, would be sold to companies that would use it for wireless Internet services?
Genachowski: I don't think we have an option as a country. There's no question that we have a looming spectrum crunch. The capacity demands of smartphones and netbooks and fixed wireless broadband are dramatically greater than what we used to have on our cell phones ... (Letting broadcasters sell airwaves they don't fully need) is such a rational, sensible approach that we certainly should try it as a country to free up spectrum and give us a chance to be globally competitive on broadband.
The good news is that we don't completely have to completely resolve it tomorrow. The bad news is that if we wait and don't do anything, by the time a crisis comes we won't be able to act because of how long it takes to do any kind of spectrum reallocation. So we need to start now and we need to develop a plan.
AP: Some of what you're proposing will run into legal challenges, on the grounds that it's not clear the FCC has the authority to regulate the Internet, an information service, the way it does communication services such as telephones.
Genachowski: It's essential that the commission has the authority it needs to move forward on the policies that makes sense for America, but I'm sure it's a solvable problem. It's a technical issue. It's a legal issue.
There's no question that the FCC one, needs to figure out what the right broadband policies are and number two, needs to move forward.