FCC chairman: universal broadband access will boost economy

by John Lyons, Arkansas News

Extending broadband Internet access to all Americans is “the great infrastructure challenge of our time,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said today.

Genachowski made the remarks during a noon talk at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock. Earlier in the day, he and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., participated in two panel discussions on broadband access at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“Broadband is to us what railroads, electricity, highways and telephones were to previous generations: A platform for commerce, a platform for economic competitiveness, for helping address major national challenges like education and health care, for connecting people with each other,” Genachowski said at the Clinton School.

Genachowski said the Obama administration is taking both short-term and long-term approaches to broadband. In the short term, $7 billion was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund grants for expanding broadband access.

“No one thinks that that’s the amount it will cost to deliver broadband to rural America … but it is an important first step and important to do it quickly to generate some near-term job creation and to do it in a way that relates to our 21st century economy,” Genachowski said.

In the long term, the FCC is charged with creating a national plan for universal access, “something we’ve lacked for some time,” Genachowski said. The plan is due in February.

About 10 percent of Americans have no broadband access. In Arkansas about 13 percent lack access, Genachowski said.

“That’s a real challenge. It becomes an even greater as the costs of digital exclusion, the costs of not being connected, get even higher,” he said.

The national rate of people who live where the Internet is available but are not connected is about 37 percent, Genachowski said. The rate is much higher in low-income and rural areas and among the elderly and minorities, he said.

Genachowski said broadband access can boost the economy in many ways that might not immediately be apparent. Farmers, for instance, can use the Internet to plan crops and buy feed, saving money both for themselves and for consumers.

“Broadband is crucial to our economic success as a country. It’s crucial to the success of every state in the country, including Arkansas,” he said.

In Pine Buff today, Genachowski and Pryor questioned panelists on the technology’s reach and ways to educate people on broadband’s benefits.

While Arkansas is rated 49th in broadband access, the state is on the leading edge of medical technology, said Michael Manley, director of outreach for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Center for Distance Health. He cited examples of doctors who have given specialized care over the Internet.

“Where you live shouldn’t decide if you live or if you die,” Manley said.
Genachowski also asked about strategies for increasing the number of residents subscribing to an Internet provider.

Although a majority of Arkansas has access to broadband, Connect Arkansas, a non-profit group that aims to increase connectivity, estimates a full 30 percent of the state’s population does not see its relevance.

Matt Dozier, the national program director for the EAST Initiative, mentioned Arkansas’ EAST labs as ways to teach students how to utilize new technology and reach out to their communities.

“We work with the communities to close that gap,” Dozier said.

article originally published at Arkansas News.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey