05 Apr Broadband access needs a champion, FCC commissioner says
Milwaukee, Wis. — The United States ranks a dismal 16th worldwide in broadband deployment largely because it lacks a national broadband strategy, a member of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday.
Speaking before the ninth annual Midwestern Telecommunications and Technology Conference at Marquette University, Milwaukee native Michael J. Copps said the nation has established broadband objectives, but has not coupled that with a strategy to meet them.
“I’m waiting to see who the champions [of broadband strategy] are going to be,” Copps said, a reference to the national government. “We need to go beyond the objectives and get to the strategy.”
Copps, an FCC Commissioner since May 2001, said legislation related to Homeland Security telecommunications and changes to the Universal Service Fund are “on track for action” in Washington this year, but closing the digital divide through greater broadband access is seldom talked about. The shame of that is the divide could get wider, which means the government would fail to ensure that all people, including those in rural and economically disadvantaged areas, have comparable access to the most advanced communications services at comparable rates.
“The way I see it, those who get access to high-speed broadband are going to win, and those who don’t are going to lose,” Copps said.
Copps, who in 1970 joined the staff of former U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings, said the U.S. is ranked 16th in the world in broadband penetration, and it’s not moving up the scale but is “cascading down.” His old boss, who was one of the most plainspoken members of the Senate, had a saying for such difficulties. “Fritz Hollings used to say, `The ox is in the ditch,'” Copps said. “Well, I think our broadband ox is in the ditch, and we better figure out a way to get it out.”
Historically, Copps noted the public and private sectors have worked together on every infrastructure challenge faced by the country, and our central infrastructure challenge today is getting broadband build out. “To get that done, we need a national broadband strategy,” he said. “We’re one of the few major industrialized nations that doesn’t have one.”
Copps noted that there are an estimated 1.6 million wireless broadband users nationally, and there are indications that this number is about to skyrocket. He praised Milwaukee for its effort to establish a wireless network, calling the city one of the laboratories for the introduction of wireless communications. Milwaukee already has an extensive network of fiber installed that will allow it to leapfrog over other communities in the installation of wireless Internet or “Wi-Fi” service.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the city has created a fund to extend wireless access to low-income residents, and some of the funding will come from Midwest Fiber Networks, which soon will start work on the construction of a citywide Wi-Fi network. “We need to utilize this fund to close the [digital] gap, and that’s what we intend to do,” Barrett said.
High wireless act
The theme of the conference was Wireless Wisconsin, and the development of regional broadband wireless networks was a major focus. Economic development in Southeastern Wisconsin has been undermined by regional conflicts and the lack of a regional identity, and building a region wide wireless network would go a long way toward reversing an ominous trend identified by Jeff Browne, president of the Public Policy Forum.
Browne cited net income migration – the difference between wealth coming in and wealth going out – as the best single measure of the economic health of a region. At the moment, he said southeastern Wisconsin is “bleeding income” despite offering a good quality of life, which makes it more imperative to build a wireless network that promotes economic development. “Together, we need to create a wireless Wisconsin,” Browne said, “and we need to do it fast.”
The Doyle Administration is implementing the $117 million BadgerNet II initiative, which is designed to provide 22 times the current broadband capacity statewide. BadgerNet, which should be completed by August of this year, will create a statewide broadband network, or backbone, with end sites in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. It will be designed with excess capacity so private-sector providers can harness the network’s capacity and extend broadband access to individuals and businesses in both rural and urban areas.
To date, 168 of 344 video sites and 375 of 981 state agency data sites have been completed, said Scott Larrivee, a spokesman for the Department of Administration.
Further impetus could come from the Wisconsin Legislature in the form of Senate Bill 483, also known as the Broadband Deployment Act. It would provide $7.5 million for a sales and use-tax exemption for Internet equipment used in the broadband market.
To be eligible for the exemption, purchasers would be required to make an investment that is “reasonably calculated” by the Department of Commerce to increase broadband Internet availability in areas of the state where there is no Internet service provider, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Businesses interested in taking advantage of the exemption would have to make such an investment within 24 months of the bill’s effective date.
The Joint Committee on Finance approved SB 483 and its companion, Assembly Bill 892, last week. To become law, they must pass both houses of the legislature during the April floor session, and be signed by governor Jim Doyle.