The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has established several broadband-centered initiatives in recent months that display the agency’s appreciation for the tangible societal potential of high-speed connectivity. Whereas previously the aim of FCC broadband policy has been enabling service providers to increase the supply of telecommunications service, à la the notion of universal service (both lowercase and capital “u” and “s”), these more recent initiatives aim at increasing demand. It appears that Chairman Julius Genachowski wants not only to spur carriers to deploy broadband, but he also wants to ensure that businesses and consumers will use it.
This intent came to light first in the National Broadband Plan, in which the FCC devoted a significant amount of energy to ascertaining how many Americans forego getting broadband, and why. That issue was not overtly teed up in Congress’s mandate for a plan ensuring “access to broadband capability,” but exploring the question whether Americans would actually use that “access” seemed a reasonable part of the exercise. The answers alarmed the FCC: only 65% of Americans use broadband at home, for reasons having little to do with its retail availability. As a result, the Plan became as much about encouraging broadband adoption as about laying transport cables.
So the Commission has, in addition to revamping Universal Service funding for the broadband era, turned its attention to what drives broadband use: applications. First was the Open Internet Applications Contest announced in January of this year. Programmers were invited to submit white papers, research, or actual applications to tell consumers how their broadband connectivity is functioning on a real-time basis. The project, which essentially commissioned the invention of an electronic watchdog against deliberate traffic disruption, was created in furtherance of the December 2010 Open Internet Order. But the Open Internet Apps Context is not only an innovative way for the FCC to ensure rule compliance – it increases consumer demand by assuring would-be subscribers that they will actually get what they pay for.
A few weeks ago, Chairman Genachowski announced the winners of the Open Internet challenge. Netalyzer was an Open Internet Research Award Winner, and proposes a Java-based applet that will link a computer to remote servers to measure several aspects of broadband-related performance, including HTTP caching and DNS manipulation. Another Open Internet Research Award Winner was the DiffProbe (short for “differential probing”), which detects whether an ISP has deployed mechanisms such as prioritization commands that alter Internet traffic. MobiPerf won both the Open Internet Research Award and the People’s Choice Award, and enables mobile handset users (those with Android and iOS operating systems) to obtain network performance information, and compiles that information anonymously. According to the FCC contest page, the winners will present their work at FCC headquarters, with travel expenses paid up to $500 per person or $1500 per team, and the applications will be featured on the FCC website and social media outlets.
The Apps For Communities contest launched in April 2011, challenging developers to create an application that will make the Internet more attractive to users. With aspirational goals of a “personalized Internet” and obtaining “actionable information,” the contest is another vehicle for the FCC to put its expertise – and up to $100,000 in prize money – behind ensuring that if telecom companies build more broadband, people will in fact come to broadband. Entries are due August 31.
The FCC’s demand-side focus now also embraces the nation’s overall economic agenda: jobs, jobs, jobs. At an event held August 4 in Jeffersonville, Indiana, the Chairman announced a partnership with Jobs4America, a coalition of call center providers, to create 100,000 new call center jobs in the next two years that, he stated, will rely entirely on broadband connectivity. Coalition members located throughout the US will either build new centers or hire persons who, thanks to broadband, can train and work at home. The program seeks to bring these jobs back from foreign countries and give them to people who, for reasons such as a disability or lack of access to child care, need to work remotely. The announcement was a victory on many fronts, none the least of which was a clear message to industry that the FCC is working to prevent a repeat of the DotCom bust in 2000 that was sparked, in large part, by miles of stranded, unused telecommunications infrastructure.
These initiatives show that the FCC is not content to assume or to assert that the mere existence of broadband is a public good. Broadband as a theory will not play. It seems that unless measurable societal benefits are achieved through integrating broadband into our classrooms, our institutions, and our workforce, the Chairman will not feel that his broadband policy was a success. If the market cannot of itself create consumer demand sufficient to create these benefits, the FCC will find an app for that.