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FCC approves plan to expand broadband AND wireless to rural areas

Ramferi Velasquez updates an entry on the VozMob (Mobile Voices) website at the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 23, 2011.

The future is not telephones, it's the Internet. That's something we were all kind of picking up on but with a decision made yesterday by the FCC, it is now something of a government policy.

The FCC approved new rules that would direct the Universal Service Fund (USF) toward supporting the building of infrastructure to support broadband Internet access in rural communities. For years, the USF has gone to building out phone lines, putting up poles, unspooling cord, all so people can get on a landline telephone. No longer. Now it's all about getting people online (once there, those people can always use Skype or a voice over Internet protocol service).

Sharon Gillett is the FCC's Wireline Competition bureau chief. She says, "Believe it or not, there's 18 million people in our country give or take who don't have high-speed access to the Internet. When they check email, they're doing it over dial-up. And what we did was we transformed a fund we administer called the Universal Service Fund into a new broadband-focused fund called The Connect America Fund and the intent is to close this broadband gap and no longer only support phone service."

But the ramifications of this could mean a lot more than just rural people checking email faster. Christian Sandvig is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and he says, "There's a real consensus that the more of our population we get on broadband, the more we can participate in new economic developments in forms of business and education and telemedicine that benefit everyone as a society. It's the same argument you get for universal education. So it's important, it's important for me to pay taxes to educate your children, because generally the whole country will be better if we have an educated population. And that's the same argument that's used for basic telecom infrastructure. What the FCC said is broadband is basic."

But while the Connect America Fund supports both wired and wireless broadband and catches those areas up to today, how well is it prepared for tomorrow. Blair Levin is worried that it doesn't go far enough. He's with the Aspen Institute and helped craft President Obama's National Broadband Plan. "The problem for broadband," he says, "is not merely a problem of getting networks everywhere. It is a problem of how we have a ubiquitous, diverse, and constantly improving broadband ecosystem that allows us to compete with the rest of world and deliver essential goods and services more effectively. The broadband platform is much more important because it's the collaborative commons for all economic activity these days. That's not to say we don't need roads and airports, but it has become an enormously important economic platform. Universal service is now part of a much bigger puzzle and yet they were looking at the expenditures of funds in the universal service context as really just solving that deployment problem and that would be my concern about what they did."

Also in today's program, another installment of Tech Report Theater. Today: "Blockbusted." Warner Brothers refuses to send movies to Blockbuster any longer, so Blockbuster is now just buying them in stores. We imagine a conversation between the companies.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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