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What the FCC chair is reading: Understanding electricity to inform Web policy

The tech boom that swept across the nation brought on an eruption of innovation, a virtual applications boom that created jobs and propelled the United States into a world leader on the bleeding edge.

That tech wave was more than one century ago, when affordable electricity was brought throughout the nation, according to “The Big Switch” by Nicholas Carr.

Carr’s book is being read by Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. And to understand his approach to the agency's task to bring affordable broadband Internet to all U.S. homes and businesses, take a look at what the nation did when electricity arrived, according to a source in the chairman’s office.

On Dec. 16, the FCC will present proposals for how it can meet the goal of universal and affordable broadband.

That service, argues Genachowski, is not a luxury. Instead, high-speed Internet is nothing less than a 21st century utility that should be viewed as essential as power and water.

“And the great infrastructure challenge of our time is the deployment and adoption of robust broadband networks that deliver the promise of high-speed Internet to all Americans,” the FCC head said in a speech at the Innovation Economy conference last week in Washington.

One century ago, manufacturers who used to own their own power sources -- windmill and water wheels -- plugged into the electric grid. After that, communities formed and businesses built around electrification boomed. Refrigerators, lightbulbs, ovens, radios and scores more applications emerged because of the power switch in homes.

The parallel today is the apps boom on the Web, where cloud computing, Facebook, YouTube, iTunes applications and Yahoo Mail are creating new definitions of community and forming businesses and jobs. Broadband can be the underlying infrastructure of other technological waves – smart grid electricity and telemedicine, for example.

Genachowski said in his speech last week:

Our electric grid was the platform for innovation that, as much as anything, helped propel the United States to global economic leadership in the 20th century. Our broadband grid has the potential to play the same role for the 21st century. Where we once had electricity-driven appliances, we now have information-fueled applications.

An “app for that” could have been the motto for America in the 20th century, too, if Madison Avenue had predated electricity.

But as noted by Carr, this transition to ubiquitous and connected computing on the Web may concentrate power into the hands of a few. That will be the challenge of the FCC, as it introduces in February its national broadband plan that is already ruffling feathers. One source in the agency says it will be a “piñata” for the communications and tech industry, that will be attacked for its broad reach. The broadcast industry doesn’t want to give up spectrum to wireless companies. Video service providers are under scrutiny for a lack of innovation and competition in the television set top box market. Rural phone companies may relinquish some funds they get so that a federal fund will refocus on broadband service to rural area.

Take a look at a previous post on another book that Genachowski's been reading -- Paul Starr's "The Creation of The Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications" -- to inform his views on broadband and net neutrality.

By Cecilia Kang  |  December 8, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Broadband , FCC  
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