Achieving universal broadband: Five steps in the right direction

Jamal Simmons, IIAWhether riding on the Amtrak train in the northeast corridor or sitting at home in Elko, Nevada, nothing is more frustrating than waiting on a slow Internet connection to check email or surf the web. For African Americans and Hispanics who use their cell phones to access the Internet more than any other group, traffic jams on the cellular onramp to what we used to call the information superhighway are just as frustrating. In just over a year, lawmakers, thought leaders and industry players have brought our nation significantly closer to easing that congestion by connecting every American with high-speed Internet at home and on the road. The five steps that have had, and will have, the greatest impact on achieving universal broadband are as follows:

In March of 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) brought innovative recommendations to bear with the rollout of the National Broadband Plan. Mapping out a strategy to put America on the road to economic recovery, to keep our country globally competitive and improve the lives of those lacking high-speed Internet, the plan was a crucial first step in laying the foundation for a broadband revolution.

Six months later, another smart move from the FCC came in September 2010. Recognizing a potential spectrum shortage due to an ever-increasing number of wireless Internet users and an insatiable demand for data-hungry mobile applications, the Commission voted in favor of unlocking the first significant block of spectrum for unlicensed use in over two decades. This "white spaces" decision unlocked a significant amount of under-used airwaves for wireless broadband networks, maximizing a scarce resource.

The third step in the right direction was taken in December of last year. The FCC settled the net neutrality issue with a compromise that left the purists on both extremes unhappy, but gave consumers protections and ISPs flexibility that moved us past a philosophical roadblock. That decision enables policymakers to finally shift their attention toward reaching tangible goals, such as closing the Digital Divide.

This past February, the Commission unanimously adopted a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) focused on reforming the Universal Service Fund (USF) to include broadband--giant step number four on the path to 100 percent broadband. For decades, the primary purpose of USF had been to fund voice service through the equivalent of a tax on inter-state phone services. Modernizing USF to effectively deploy high-speed broadband Internet to unserved and underserved areas is, hands-down, a win for rural communities. This outbreak of common sense in the halls of government means that all Americans should soon be able to fully participate in and equally benefit from a broadband society.

Finally, AT&T's (NYSE: T) statements to the FCC affirm that the combination of AT&T's and T-Mobile's resources should mean 4G LTE or fourth generation wireless standards will be expanded and deployed to more than 97 percent of the U.S. population. In addition to bringing our nation extremely close to realizing the shared goal of connecting every American, increased mobile broadband availability for the underserved and those in small, rural communities will promote economic growth and competitiveness, investment and job creation. Heightened spectrum efficiencies from the combination will also notably improve network capacity, helping to alleviate the aforementioned spectrum crunch. To boot, several academics and analysts have said that the merger would elevate competition in a way that is particularly beneficial for underserved and rural areas: providing an alternative to wireline Internet connectivity.

America is on a fast-track toward achieving universal broadband and reducing that traffic jam on the cellular onramp to the information superhighway, thus improving service for all. Let's keep up the momentum.

Jamal Simmons has recently been named co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).