Internet Access May Get Faster, Broader

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The Federal Communications Commission has proposed an overhaul of U.S. broadband policy, which would expand high-speed Internet access to more of the country and make existing connections faster. Host Michel Martin speaks with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, one of five members who help regulate the telecommunications sector.


Now we go to an important story about the way we all communicate. The Federal Communications Commission earlier this week unveiled the national broadband plan. It's a 300-plus page document that outlines the agency's blueprint to build speedy and affordable broadband services for all. Here to talk about the plan is Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps. He's one of five members who help regulate the telecommunications industry. He's with us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. MICHAEL J. COPPS (Federal Communications Commissioner): Hi, Michel, thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Well, part of the digital divide is that some people have no idea what we're talking about. So, if you would just keep it stupid simple for us, what is broadband and why do we need this plan?

Mr. COPPS: Well, broadband is the high-speed connection to the telecommunications infrastructure of the 21st century. We're moving our telecommunications. We're going to be moving a large part of our media, a large part of the way we communicate to broadband. So the need of the hour is to make sure that every American has a connection to that high-speed broadband and has a connection that's affordable for them.

Right now we've got digital gaps in this country. We've got about a third of our people who live in homes without broadband. That translates into something like 93 million folks. And that's one-third of the nation that we cannot afford to leave behind in the competitive country and the competitive world in which we live if we're going to provide jobs and opportunity for all.

MARTIN: Okay. Now, you've said that access to broadband technology is everybody's right. Why?

Mr. COPPS: Well, I think without it, there's no opportunity. Without it you don't have the tools that you're going to need to succeed in the 21st century. So, if that opportunity if that access is denied, opportunity is denied. And I think we all have a right to have that. If this is going to be the central platform that we communicate on in every way over and above our personal conversations, then we all have to have access to it.

MARTIN: Now, a number of groups and players have rallied behind this plan. They say it does a great deal to close the digital divide. That's what you and I have just been talking about, the fact that some people have access to this technology now, other people a lot of people not at all. But there are also critics who say that this is really a Band-Aid, that the taxpayers have already paid for this and it actually doesn't even bring us into line with the technologies that are already available in Japan, for example, or France.

For example, according to, the U.S. - the average U.S. broadband speed is a 20th of a download speed you can get in Hong Kong or Japan or France right now.

Mr. COPPS: One of the large reasons for this is that we've been asleep at the switch in this country for all these years when those other countries that you just mentioned have been forging ahead and getting high speed broadband deployed and getting people to adopt it. But we took a very different tack here where we just thought, well, the private sector will get all of this infrastructure out there, not even considering those areas where there is no attraction for business or the private sector to come in. So we haven't had a strategy. And for the almost nine years I've been at this commission, I've been saying, we're about the only industrial country on the face of the earth that doesn't have a broadband strategy. Let's get a plan.

So it was music to my ears when we got a government that was supportive of this. And the president and the Congress instructed the FCC to develop a plan and that's what we're doing here. We are playing catch-up here, absolutely right. There's no question about it. But if we do this plan right, we'll not only be playing catch-up, we'll be playing, going ahead. And that's where we should want your country and my country to be.

MARTIN: The FCC hopes to implement this initiative by the year 2020. Do I have that right?

Mr. COPPS: Yeah. I think this is a long process and the plan is not a roadmap. The plan is a general strategy. The devil is going to be in the details. There are going to be some tough decisions that are going to have to be made and there may be some midcourse corrections that will have to be made too. But, you know, this broadband is the way we ought to see it, this is not just a technology for technology geeks to say whoopee about.

This is kind of the great enabler of our time. We've got all of these problems with energy dependence and environmental degradation and lost jobs and a lack of health insurance, declining education. There are no solution to any of those problems without a broadband component attached to them. So it goes to just about every great challenge that the country faces right now. And that's why it's so important.

MARTIN: But I guess what I'm trying to get at is, what is already being offered in many other countries? A very high speed broadband under this plan...

Mr. COPPS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...will get to us in ten years. So won't that leave America already behind?

Mr. COPPS: Well, it's not just going to be nothing happens for ten years and then all of the sudden ten years we get this high-speed broadband. It's a build out and it's got benchmarks. So as we proceed, we'll be bringing higher speeds to all the different areas of the country. We've got to start somewhere and it's a long process of building.

MARTIN: What does this mean for our listeners right now?

Mr. COPPS: It means that you really need to be aware of what is going on here. You need to understand the need for this is not just about deployment and getting the networks built, it's all about making sure that everybody signs up for it. So that means it's got to be affordable and that means that people have to understand how important it is for their lives.

You're looking for a job, say, you're looking with a Fortune 500 company, 75 or 80 percent of those companies now are recruiting almost solely online. So you don't just put that resume in an envelope and send it off and expect an answer. We're in the digital world now. Things work differently. And that's just one example of many that would cut across every sector of our economic activity.

MARTIN: I understand that one of the reasons you're excited about this is you've been champing at the bit. You feel that, as we've discussed, that this country is already behind some of our major industrial competitors in advancing this technology. What is the most important thing about this plan in your view?

Mr. COPPS: Well, you know, there's lots. I've tried to focus on some of the less tangible aspects of it. If we're going to transition everything to broadband on the Internet, that means that's how we're going to get our news and information, also. And we all know that some of our traditional media -broadcast and newspapers are in a lot of trouble now, but that's still where people continue to get the bulk of their news from. There's just less of it than there used to be.

So we've got to figure out how in this new broadband world we're going to support that kind of news and information that folks need. And to me that's one of the most challenging problems we face. Democracy runs on an informed populace and informed citizenry. And we've always found ways to make information and news and information available to people, going back to when we had postal subsidies in the first part of our country's life, way back in Washington and Jefferson's time.

We've got to find out now how we can make sure that news and information is made available to all of our people in the digital age. There is no automatic, new model out there for that to happen. We're going to have to work very hard on this to make sure that we have the news and information that we need so our country can survive.

MARTIN: All right, we have to leave it there for now. We certainly do appreciate you're taking the time to talk to us. Michael J. Copps, who's a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. And he joined us by phone from his office. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. COPPS: Thank you, I appreciate it.

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