WASHINGTON, May 20, 2009 - Though confirmation proceedings for his successor remain postponed, Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps (D) isn't slowing down in the drive to achieving one of his long-standing goals: a national broadband strategy for the United States.
"I'm enthused as I can be that this country is finally, finally going to develop a national broadband plan," Copps said Wednesday in an interview for C-SPAN's "The Communicators" series. The interview is set to air on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Copps lamented the number of years that had passed while the previous administration assumed a laissez-faire, or free-market-based, strategy would solve the nation's broadband problems. "That didn't happen," Copps bluntly declared.
The $7.25 billion allocated to broadband programs in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act is a necessary piece of the puzzle to get the nation caught-up, economically and technologically, said Copps.
"We're way behind in broadband," he said. "There is a need to do something now."
Copps said the FCC has been sharing personnel and expertise with the Agriculture and Commerce Departments in an effort move the stimulus grant process along faster.
Developing a national strategy, however, is an "even bigger part of the game," he said.
To craft a plan, Copps said the FCC must first lay groundwork by doing research to "develop the record... do the mapping... and find the reality of the situation right now."
Copps said he is not underestimating the importance of the FCC's task: "It's the biggest thing that's come to the FCC since I've been there," he said.
Building a national broadband network is akin to previous efforts at rural electrification, universal phone service, and interstate highways, Copps said. Building projects of that scale requires cooperation between government and industry, he said.
"That's the way we've always built infrastructure in this country – working together."
Copps said the Internet is fast becoming "essential infrastructure" for all parts of American life.
"You've gotta have this stuff...to create opportunity for yourself," he said. And broadband is not just a social issue, either, he added. "We need [broadband] as a country to be competitive," he said.
But Copps insisted that national broadband connectivity was not a political issue. "This isn't some kind of super-liberal... social theory," he said. "This is about competition for the country, and we're paying the price [for waiting] in billions of dollars every year."
Copps said the FCC’s "full speed ahead on all fronts" strategy includes mapping, consumer surveys, and a comparative study of the state of broadband, with a minimum of 75 markets within 25 countries.
"I think that's great," Copps said of the international comparisons, "but we have to start right now."
Even though it is possible that most stimulus funds will be spent by the time the FCC's national broadband plan is due by February 2010, Copps called the stimulus and related programs "only a down payment" on broadband.
Copps said he wanted an answered to the question: "how do you get this infrastructure to every citizen in the country?"
The answer will not just be about "broadband for broadband," Copps warned. "It's broadband for all these other issues," he said, listing a smart electrical grid, improved health care, education, and public safety. "Almost every challenge this country really faces" depends on a solid broadband infrastructure, he said.
Copps ackowledged that there will be challenges in building out to some hard-to-reach areas. They may necessitate public-private partnerships, he said.
"Obviously government can't build this infrastructure all by itself."
But the private sector can, and should, be a "lead locomotive... fueled by far-seeing public policy" in fulfilling the goal of a national network, Copps said.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we will find a way to get this infrastructure built."