FCC Commissioner Calls for Action on National Broadband Plan

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Stumping in favor a national broadband plan the Federal Communications Commission’s Michael Copps spoke at Stanford University’s Law School Thursday, the first stop of a Silicon Valley tour that will also include visits to Apple and Google.

Copps, the longest-serving commissioner at the FCC, repeatedly asked for the public to get more involved in the issue. “If this is an inside-the-Beltway issue, we lose,” he told reporters following his address here.

Copps wants to publicize the issue because he worries that telecom and other well-funded lobbying groups have the ear of government officials who he fears will follow those special interests unless there is more advocacy by the public in favor of broadband deployment and efforts at the commission to clarify its regulatory authority.

“People need to realize that meeting the broadband challenge is really something important in their lives and for their futures. And they need to understand that a competitive nation cannot tolerate digital divides between haves and have-nots, between those living in big cities and those living in rural areas or on tribal lands, between the able-bodied and persons with disabilities,” he said.

“And they need to remember that this nation has a long history of successful infrastructure-building to draw on,” he added.

Copps is the FCC’s most outspoken advocate on another telecom issue, net neutrality. The idea is to hold broadband service providers accountable for their network-management policies and that ensure that they don’t block or slow specific types of Internet traffic. But those efforts, and the national broadband plan, took a hit back in April when a panel of judges in a federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s legal theory supporting its regulatory authority in the broadband sector.

Net neutrality advocates have promoted a fall-back plan of reclassifying broadband as a so-called Title II telecommunications service, a legal designation that would put the FCC on firmer footing as it looks to enact the broadband plan and implement open Internet rules. The divided commission is scheduled to vote on the reclassification proposal at a meeting next week.

During his visit here, Copps said he planned to meet with officials at Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG). Google has been a particularly strong advocate of a national broadband rollout and has helped fund a public wireless network in Mountain View, Calif, where the company is based, as well as other communities.

“We need to ensure that people understand how broadband is not technology for technology’s sake — it is important because it really can be our ‘great enabler,'” Copps said. “This is technology that intersects with every great challenge confronting our nation — improving energy efficiency, halting climate degradation, improving health care for all our citizens, educating our young — and our old, too — helping the disabled realize their full potential, creating new public safety tools for first responders, and opening the doors of economic and social opportunity for all.”

Copps also touched on other Internet topics, including the survival of newspapers and investigative journalism. Newspapers and other print publications have seen their revenues dwindle for years in the face of both an economic downturn that led to a drop in advertising as well as the flight of readers to online news sources.

“The problem now is that we don’t have a model for the level of support for the journalism our country desires,” Copps told reporters.

“I think journalism and broadcast is going to survive for a long time, but what is not going to be there is the depth of content they had before,” he added. “The market will support a slimmed down Washington Post and slimmed down [news] bureaus, but that’s depriving the American people of the knowledge they need to run the country.”

Copps said he’s encouraging the experimentation of new funding models in the digital age. “It could be that the only way newspapers survive is that they get more public support than they have now,” he said.

But he also acknowledged that proposing anything like the government funding the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) receives for newspapers is going to meet with opposition. “Some guy is probably going to be on cable screaming up and down saying you’re Mao Zedong,” Copps told reporters. “We have to go on the offensive.”

As for broadband deployment, Copps told the audience that he is optimistic that the government will accomplish the broadband reclassification to clarify the FCC’s role.

“I’m possessed with the idea that the future is now,” said Copps. “Seize the day, the cycle of reform is now and no one knows how long it will stay open.”

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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