FCC opens effort to boost broadband to nation

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Regulators opened a debate on Wednesday on how the United States, trailing many industrialized countries in access and adoption of high-speed Internet, can extend the technology to low-income and other under-served areas.

The Federal Communications Commission, taking orders from Congress, has until February 2010 to draw up a strategy that will address controversial issues as Internet openness, definitions of affordability and what speeds are fast enough.

A report for the United Nations out this week said the U.S. has fallen to 17th from 11th in a survey of nations’ advanced use of information and communications technology, which took into account adoption, speed and literacy.

“We are coming to grips with the fact that we have a long way to go to get high-speed value-laden broadband out to all citizens,” acting FCC chief Michael Copps told a public meeting.

The Obama Administration’s nearly $800 billion stimulus legislation ordered the plan, in addition to $7.2 billion in funds the government will dole out to promote expansion.

Copps and Obama have both heralded the technology as a means to fuel economic growth, in areas including healthcare and education.

Obama’s choice to lead the FCC is Julius Genachowski, a former executive at IAC/Interactive and technology investor. His nomination is making its way through Senate confirmation, which is expected.

The plan is proceeding along a parallel track, as the awarding of the stimulus funding is being dispersed by separate government agencies.

Robert McDowell, the sole Republican on the FCC, said the plan should not include any “counterproductive government mandates.”

It “must allow network operators a reasonable opportunity to pay back investors,” he said.

Those views echo those of many in the telecommunications industry, which in general oppose mandates for openness that prevent Internet providers from discriminating as it routes Internet traffic.

Public interest groups want such a mandate on Internet openness. They also want the FCC to boost speeds that can be labeled “high speed.”

The FCC now defines broadband speed at about 768 kilobits per second, slow by most standards, most experts agree.

Conventional dial-up is about 56 kilobits per second, but cable companies offer high-speed Internet at typically a minimum of 1 megabit per second, and in most cases, more than that.