Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dear FCC Chair Genachowski: An Open Letter

March 21, 2010, 11:45 a.m.

Controlling the Broadband-Its
(brought to you by*)

The National Broadband Plan remains my focus this morning.

That's a dramatic declaration given local news. UNI just beat the nation's top-ranked Kansas basketball team. And I'm even more excited about the UI girls' basketball team -- some of the most accomplished athletes I've ever seen in any sport -- beating Rutgers. [Why? Here's insight: Patty Fisher, "Rooting for the women," San Jose Mercury News, March 22, 2010.] Meanwhile, the local school board is trying to figure out what it's looking for in a new superintendent -- apparently it's some sort of combination of the best of the qualities of Thomas Jefferson, Jesus and The Music Man. (As is often the case with this board, it's going about it backwards. Its first question should be what kind of a board the board is looking for, and prepared to offer, its new superintendent -- in short, defining its governance model. Thus, the number one quality I'd be looking for is a superintendent who refuses to be considered for the position until the board takes care of this "Job One.")

Oh, and the House is going to be voting on the health care bill tonight.

So when the FCC's National Broadband Plan (NBP) wins out over that kind of competition for the subject of the Monday morning blog entry, it gives you some sense of how significant I think those broadband issues are -- for the planet, the nation, and specifically for our state of Iowa.

Almost regardless of the standard being measured, the United States ranks somewhere between 15th and 19th among OECD nations with regard to number of persons with broadband access to the Internet, the speed provided, and the monthly costs. See, e.g., Berkman, “Next Generation Connectivity: A Review of Broadband Internet Transitions and Policy from Around the World (Final Report),” The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, October 2009 (draft), February 16, 2010 (Final Report), Table 1.1, p. 12.

So while the U.S. may be starting off a few years behind, I think it's commendable that the Congress and FCC have now taken the leadership that they have.

The work of the FCC staff over the last twelve months, culminating in the 376-page "National Broadband Plan," is a most impressive and commendable accomplishment by Washington standards. FCC, “Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan,” March 16, 2010. See Matt Richtell and Brian Stelter, "F.C.C. Questioned on Its Far-Reaching Plan to Expand Broadband Access," New York Times, March 17, 2010, p. B4; Editorial, "A Plan for Broadband," New York Times, March 21, 2010, p. WK9.

Many of the proposals in the FCC's NBP are actually consistent with those in my own national broadband plan's focus on consumer issues, written long before the NBP was available, Nicholas Johnson, "The Broadband Challenge: Consumer Protection in a Deregulated Digital Age," February 2010.

What the NBP fails to address, however, is what has been the keystone to the success of other countries in providing a broadband service that is more extensive, much faster, and much cheaper, than what the U.S. now has or is likely to have in the future. The governments of countries that are now way out ahead of us have, among other things, insisted that those who own and control the major broadband backbones must provide non-discriminatory, reasonably priced access to any and all of their current and potential competitors. The resulting competition among consumers' providers is what has encouraged service to more homes and businesses, at faster speeds, and lower prices -- as well as providing a welcoming platform for those entrepreneurs with exciting and innovative smart phone Internet access to imaginative new apps.

This failure has been the cause of much concern by a number of public interest groups, among them, which has gone so far at to characterize the NBP as the "Internet Rip-Off."

FreePress sent me an email, suggesting I write the FCC Chair, Julius Genachowski, along with some suggested text.

I don't usually act on the basis of such emails, but on this occasion I decided to -- after deleting the suggested text.

Chairman Genachowski:

This is a plea for you to do whatever you feel you can to provide SOMETHING to control currently unrestrained broadband prices.

I understand the power the largest players have, as a result of their campaign contributions, over the members of Congress who, in turn, have some meaningful controls over you. It would be unfair to hold you singularly responsible for the consequences of Congress' failure to enact meaningful public financing of elections.

But the reality is that most Iowans have a choice of but two potential suppliers: Qwest and Mediacom. If they want more than 1.5 mbps, in most areas of the state that means their only choice is Mediacom.

Notwithstanding profit margins upwards of 80%, there is no provision for local, state, or federal cost-related price regulation.

As I understand it, you are not going to require open access for competitors -- the primary driving force in, for example, Korea's near-universal coverage, speeds well in excess of ours, and rates a fraction of ours.

Your staff has done such a great job with the NBP in so many other ways, I really hate to see you taking heat for this rather embarrassing elephantine-sized hole in the Plan.

Please do something to control what may well end up being the single greatest hurdle to accomplishing the goals you have set forth.


Nicholas Johnson
FCC, 1966-73
I'm not expecting a detailed and responsive reply anytime soon, but I do hope someone at my old agency will at least read, and count in some category, my concerns.

Unless someone in Congress is willing to take the leadership on this, and take on the opposition (and exceedingly generous campaign contributions) from the powers of telecom, the NBP may well end up becoming little more than a dusty dream on the shelves (and in the hard drives) of the FCC.

And that would be America's real loss in the global competition we will continue to confront over the decades to come.

Web Sites and Documents

I have recently added a list of related Web sites and documents as references to my paper, Nicholas Johnson, "The Broadband Challenge: Consumer Protection in a Deregulated Digital Age," February 2010. They are reproduced, below, for such use as they may be to those interested in this subject who have not yet had an opportunity to examine my paper:


Note: Over 59,000,000 hits return from a Google search on “broadband.” This list of references is obviously but an illustrative handful.

Web sites (an FCC site,; see especially dropdown menu, About Broadband,, for basic broadband overview)

The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program,

Berkman Center for Internet & Society,

Center for Digital Democracy, (click on “Current Projects,”

Consumer Federation of America, (see especially dropdown menu, Communications/Internet, for testimony and other materials)

Freepress, (see especially dropdown menu Policy Updates/Internet/“Internet Policy,”, for links to numerous articles and filings from freepress and others)

Media Access Project, (click on Issues/Broadband/Open Access,

Public Knowledge, (see especially dropdown “Issues,”, scroll down to, and click on links to broadband-related topics)

Speed Matters (CWA),

Stanford Center for Internet and Society,

TeleTruth (“Alliance for Customers’ Telecommunications & Broadband Rights”),

Reports and Articles

FCC, “Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan,” March 16, 2010,

Berkman, “Next Generation Connectivity: A Review of Broadband Internet Transitions and Policy from Around the World (Final Report),” The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, October 2009 (draft), February 16, 2010 (Final Report),

John B. Horrigan, “Broadband Adoption and Use in America,” OBI Working Paper Series Number 1, FCC, February 2010,

“Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities,” Social Science Research Council (Dharma Dailey, Amelia Bryne, Alison Powell, Joe Karaganis, and Jaewon Chung), March 2010,

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, "The Internet Economy 25 Years After .Com: Transforming Commerce & Life," March 2010 (Robert D. Atkinson, Stephen J. Ezell, Scott M. Andes, Daniel D. Castro, and Richard Bennett),

“Scenarios for a National Broadband Policy,” Report of the 24th Annual Aspen Institute Conference on Communications Policy, The Aspen Institute, Communications and Society Program (2010; David Bollier, Rapporteur),

Networking the Green Economy: How Broadband and Related Technologies Can Build a Green Economic Future, March 2010 (Progressive States Network; Communications Workers of America; Sierra Club; BlueGreen Alliance),

Karl Bode, “FCC Afraid to Tackle Open Access; Broadband Plan Architect Believes There’s ‘No Appetite’ For It. Wait, What?” Broadband/DSL Reports, March 2, 2010,

Laurence Cruz, “Cisco Puts an Internet Router in Space; In a Move that Could Revolutionize Satellite Communications, Cisco Extends the Internet Into Space for Testing by the U.S. Government and Businesses,” Cisco, January 19, 2010,

Doris J. Kelley, “A Study of the Economic and Community Benefits of Cedar Falls, Iowa’s, Municipal Telecommunications Network,” Black & Veatch, October 2, 2003, updated July 6, 2004,

freepress, “Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age,” May 2009, 289 pp., (see especially Part I: The Internet, chapters 1-6)

Andy Opsahl, “Is the Federal Government’s Defined Speed for Broadband Too Slow?” Government Technology, January 8, 2010,

“Broadband access gap remains large; Commerce Department report points to 40 percent of Americans who lack high-speed internet access,” eSchool News, February 17, 2010,

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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