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Summary:

The FCC chairman today outlined a vision for 100 Mbps connections to 100 million homes. But that goal will be easy compared with other aspects of the National Broadband Plan he outlined such as delivering faster universal service, telehealth, a smart grid, and digital literacy programs.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, has outlined his vision for broadband in America: 100 Mbps connections to 100 million homes. As part of an update on the National Broadband Plan due to Congress in mid-March, Genachowski sketched out a plan that would keep the U.S. competitive with other nations and enable 90 percent of the population to have and use broadband, up from about 65 percent today.

The proposed speeds seem pretty damn exciting, but the devil is in the details. Currently, at least 55 million homes have the infrastructure to get 100 Mbps deployments through fiber-to-the-home or through a cable DOCSIS 3.0 deployment (the ISP may not offer 100 Mbps to the home, but it could be delivered). The time frame for getting 100 Mbps connections to 100 million homes was undefined, although Genachowski called this a “2020 vision.” While I think a decade is too long to wait for 100 Mbps to a third majority of the nation, getting that deployed is by far the easiest aspect of the plan.

Speaking at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Conference in Washington, D.C., Genachowski said:

“Our plan will set goals for the U.S. to have the world’s largest market of very high-speed broadband users. A “100 Squared” initiative — 100 million households at 100 megabits per second — to unleash American ingenuity and ensure that businesses, large and small, are created here, move here, and stay here.

And we should stretch beyond 100 megabits. The U.S. should lead the world in ultra-high-speed broadband testbeds as fast, or faster, than anywhere in the world. In the global race to the top, this will help ensure that America has the infrastructure to host the boldest innovations that can be imagined. Google announced a one gigabit testbed initiative just a few days ago — and we need others to drive competition to invent the future.”

In addition to delivering 100 Mbps to almost a third a majority of the population, he laid out several areas where the FCC would act to provide small businesses and rural areas with broadband. There were also hints as to how the FCC will convince laggards why broadband is a good thing. It sounds like some of that convincing will come from lower access costs in some areas combined with an overall shift in delivering services from medicine to schooling via broadband networks. The plan outlined by Genachowski includes the following recommendations:

  • To improve the E-Rate program for Internet connections in classrooms and libraries.
  • To modernize the FCC’s rural telemedicine program to connect thousands of additional clinics and eliminate bureaucratic barriers to telehealth.
  • To take the steps necessary to deploy broadband for the smart grid.
  • To develop public/private partnerships to increase Internet adoption, so children can use the Internet proficiently and safely. Programs like the NCTA’s new A+ program are a model.
  • To free up a significant amount of spectrum in the years ahead for ample licensed and unlicensed use.
  • To use government rights of way and conduits to lower the cost of wired and wireless broadband deployments.
  • To build an interoperable public safety network to replace the current system.

Genachowski also said that while other countries with broadband plans have universality goals ranging from speeds of up to 1-2 megabits per second, the U.S. goal for universal service will be higher. He talked up digital literacy as well, saying every child must be digitally literate by the time he or she leaves high school. He also offered scary stats that Om and I called on the FCC to address last year:

  • Right now, roughly 14 million Americans do not have access to broadband.
  • The U.S. broadband adoption rate is about 65 percent, compared with 88 percent in Singapore and 95 percent in South Korea.
  • The U.S. adoption rate is even lower than 65 percent among low-income, minority, rural, tribal, and disabled households.
  • Some 26 percent of rural business sites do not have access to a standard cable modem and 9 percent don’t have DSL.
  • More than 70 percent of small businesses have little or no mobile broadband.

So this appears to be a decent sketch, although it’s far less revolutionary than it might seem. Filling in the details around lowering costs and delivering actual services are where the plan could have the most impact. Getting a 100 Mbps pipe to a few million more people over the next decade will happen regardless of the FCC putting it in the National Broadband plan. Delivering faster universal service to rural and low-income areas, real telehealth, a smart grid, broadband to schools and creating a digital literacy programs will be the real challenges.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):

When It Comes to Pain at the Pipe, Upstream Is the New Downstream


This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

  1. Pitiful and sad that we could trail in speed of data, access, and broadband adoption. Talk about lack of jobs and education.
    Glad it’s on the FCC’s agenda now. Late and slow.

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  2. [...] (February 16, 2009): It looks like the FCC is finally starting to move in the right direction on the bandwidth [...]

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  3. “100 million households” is about 85% of the population, not a third. Census Bureau figures for 2009 count 117 million households, total. 100 million households would represent more than 250 million persons.

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    1. Mike, I updated the story because, yes, households and people are different. Thank you for pointing that out. However, the data about homes already served by 100 Mbps-capable technologies are still homes, not people, so I still don’t think the plan is as revolutionary as it might seem.

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  4. [...] The proposed speeds seem pretty damn exciting, but the devil is in the details. Currently, at least … [...]

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  5. Great idea, but it’s late and getting later. Why should we wait 10 years to get what Japan, Korean and many more nations have today? AT&T and others could rapidly (and less expensively) bring that kind of performance to users around the country using FTTN architectures that include the existing copper wire plant and fiber backbone. More at http://www.bit.ly/cELY2M

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  6. Uh, who, exactly, is going to be willing to pay for that 100 Mbps of bandwidth? Bandwidth costs us $100 per Mbps per month at WHOLESALE. Know any households who can afford $10K per month for broadband? And why hasn’t the FCC acted on the “special access” docket which it has had open since 2005 — which is supposed to address these absurd prices?

    Oh, and where is the spectrum to deliver this wonderful high speed broadband that everyone wants? My company is ready to do it, but cannot obtain spectrum for love or money. The FCC has allowed spectrum hoarders and speculators to game the auctions and then sit on spectrum for years, waiving deployment requirements left and right. How can it complain that we’re not delivering higher speeds when it won’t make it possible for a local business to get the spectrum to do it?

    It’s fine to talk pie in the sky, but if the FCC won’t actually enable ISPs to do it, it’s just that: talk.

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    1. sorry still catching up with fastest changing technologies but what spectrum ?! isn’t FTTH or cable docSIS technology the article talking about ?!

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      1. You’re out of touch. Fiber is nothing but wireless inside an expensive tube that’s even more expensive to bury and difficult to fix when it breaks.

        Wireless can do anything that fiber can do; the only barriers are regulatory and political.

        Broadband could be a lot cheaper per megabit, too, if the FCC took action on the “special access” docket on which it has sat, lamely, for FIVE YEARS (an eternity in Internet time).

        Current FCC policy or inaction is what has prevented wireless ISPs from rolling out 100 Mbps service ALREADY.

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    2. agree with you on everything except I don’t’ think frequencies inside fiber is regulated. This is your fiber and you transmit at 850, 1100 or 1550nm is your choice; nothing to do with FCC.

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      1. The frequencies you use inside fiber are not regulated. However, the frequency with which you can dig up the streets to lay fiber is very heavily regulated. Towns, cities, counties, and states also levy heavy charges and franchise fees — not just one time fees but recurring fees — on anyone who buries or hangs fiber. Wireless is better; no need to dig anything up. And you can’t cut wireless with a post hole digger.

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  7. By the time they’ll achieve this with broadband, 4G and 5G will have already accomplished that.

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  8. Stacey, as Mike Sullivan noted in his comment, your headline and some of your analysis is terribly misleading, because the goal is for 100 million households, not persons.

    But your underlying analysis is spot on, because most industry analysts put the coverage of DOCSIS 3 to be 90 percent of homes by 2013; which gets us to the availability of 100Mbps capability very soon, without the FCC doing anything. Hopefully the Broadband Plan will address issues like spectrum hoarding and special access rate abuse — policies that will help Brett Glass, who needs something to calm him down :)

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    1. If you think that the only reason to stop anticompetitive tactics is to “calm Brett Glass down,” you’re missing the point.

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  9. Stacey
    You’re virtually the only reporter who got this one right. Julius’ plan (which isn’t final) does almost nothing that wouldn’t have happened without no plan at all – and adds a $5-10B tax on the Internet for the benefit of the telcos according to some beliefs. Really, really ugly no matter how much lipstick you put on. That’s why he ran off stage refusing to take questions. From the Columbia CITI report to the FCC
    “Executive Summary
    One principal conclusion that can be drawn from this report is that by 2013‐4, broadband service
    providers expect to be able to serve about 95%2 of U.S. homes with at least a low speed of wired
    broadband service and they expect to offer to about 90% of homes advertised speeds of 50 mbps
    downstream.3 Service providers expect to provide many homes with access to these higher speeds by
    2011‐2012.4 Wireless broadband service providers expect to offer wireless access at advertised speeds
    ranging up to 12 mbps downstream (but more likely 5 mbps or less due to capacity sharing) to about
    94% of the population by 2013. …five to ten
    million (which represent 4.5 to 9 percent of households)5, will have significantly inferior choices in
    broadband.”
    That 90% is over 95M homes by 2013-2014, almst all the way to his goal. If half the new homes this decade get cable connections (likely almost all will), 100M in 2020 from the plan implies somehow they will delay deployment, not improve it. The rest is just as bad. db

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  10. Two key questions are on my mind (and again, I’ll gladly settle for the U.S. reaching parity with the global market leaders).

    1) what is the upload speed objective? 2) what is the price objective for 100 Mbps service?

    Keep in mind, if you are like me and you’re “lucky” to have 6 Mbps cable broadband in America, then your upload handicapped at 360 Kbps (and that’s on a good day). GigaOm readers in France and South Korea, please contain your laughter.

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