In a move which could help facilitate economic growth, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski this week announced a high-level task force to address the transition away from 1930s era copper, circuit switched communications networks and to state-of-the-art next generation high speed Internet Protocol (IP) based networks.
For the African-American community, this is about more than just phone regulations. It’s about our ability to end the Digital Divide so that everyone can connect to high speed advanced wired and wireless networks to enjoy the Internet’s benefits in areas such as education, healthcare, government services and entertainment.
For example, modern communications networks have the potential to improve healthcare, a subject that is especially important for those who have difficulty taking time off from work or finding adequate transportation. Remote patient monitoring and other advances in e-medicine and mobile health technologies can go a long way toward addressing the problems of access to and affordability of healthcare.
Don’t just take my word for it. In a speech to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council earlier this year, National Urban League President Marc Morial spoke powerfully about the stakes involved with expanding affordable communication access. He urged attendees to accept that universal broadband access is key to full participation in our society.
Wireless access is especially important, he said, because it helps alleviate some of the affordability concerns created by wired broadband services. That’s a key point because African-Americans and Hispanic Americans use their mobile phones to access the Internet at “statistically significant” higher rates than whites.
Given the numerous benefits to expanded access and updated advanced communications networks, who could possibly oppose investment in and the expansion of updated, faster networks?
Surprisingly, one segment of the communications industry stands in opposition, and they don’t even provide service to residential consumers. Due to antiquated monopoly-era rules still on the books that require incumbent providers to maintain these old copper, analog, non-broadband networks, certain companies known as “competitive local exchange carriers”, or “CLECs”, have been able to use copper-line phone regulations to their advantage to “ride” on this old network provided by incumbents. These CLECs have decided to build their businesses by serving business customers and have largely ignored investing in facilities and services designed to offer service to America’s towns and neighborhoods. Serving America’s residential communities with high speed broadband service requires significant investment and deployment of next-generation networks, the very type of investment that CLECs have not embraced in the past.
Today, some incumbent telephone companies have committed to make the type of investments necessary to move America’s consumers toward high speed broadband service, however, they are being held back by rules requiring them to maintain two networks – the soon to be obsolete old copper network that consumers are rapidly leaving, as well as the next generation high speed IP networks consumers are demanding.
Chairman Genachowski and his colleagues will need to be vigilant about ensuring holdover regulations, such as the one that requires incumbents to maintain this old network, do not interfere with the spread of affordable broadband access for consumers. The economic stakes are huge. Telecommunications is a huge driver of job-creating investment. Just look at AT&T. The largest corporate investor in the country, it’s scheduled to invest $66 billion in the U.S. during the next three years. (Not coincidentally, it’s also the U.S.’ largest employer of full-time union workers.)
While the FCC and Chairman Genachowski should be congratulated for the creation of the new task force, we encourage the FCC to focus on how to bring next generation high speed broadband to consumers, and not to be swayed by factions acting in only their own financial best interest. The President set a laudable goal for our country—bringing access to high speed broadband to 98% of Americans. The fastest way to reach this goal is to move forward with the transition to high speed IP networks. We hope the FCC and this Task Force moves forward acting in consumers’ best interests so that we can all benefit from the healthcare, education, professional and social media connectivity options that IP networks provide.