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Georgetown, Columbia Programs Gather Experts To Discuss National Broadband Plan

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WASHINGTON March 21, 2011 - The Columbia Institute for Tele-Information and Georgetown University’s Communication Culture and Technology Program gathered government officials and industry experts Friday to debate the federal government’s implementation of the National Broadband Plan.

Former Executive Director of the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative, Blair Levin, kicked off the event calling the broadband plan “a set of ideas, not a blueprint.” Levin compared the plan to a novel that was then being made into a movie, while the main ideas of what needs to be done were articulated, the details would change based on the realities of the day.

“Having high speed broadband will not guarantee success,” Levin said, “but not having it will lead to failure.” He went onto say that the speed of the network needs to be relative to the activity that will take place on it.

Levin commented that “going from narrowband to broadband brought about great advantages, but it’s unknown what the next great leap in speed will bring.”

He highlighted the iPhone's meteoric rise in popularity using a relatively slow, but widely-accessible network. As the device was able to access the faster 3G network, however, it was able to harness new speed and innovators developed new applications.

While many plans focused on speed, Levin was proud of the fact that the U.S. plan looked beyond simple network expansion to include application and adoption.

Aneesh Chopra, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, reiterated Levin’s praise of the national purposes section, saying that it showed how broadband could be used in expanding education, promoting public safety and improving energy savings. These, he said, are the areas where the economy will gain the most value.

“Many sectors of the economy have not yet embraced high-speed broadband to improve their productivity, but the Obama Administration is trying to push them to adopt new policies which will harness the power of high speed access,” Chropa said. “One of the key proposals within the health care reform act was the digital health records which will allow doctors to share information more easily via safe and secure networks.”

Chopra acknowledged that there are barriers for many sectors to fully embrace broadband, but the administration is trying to knock those barriers down by working with industry and lawmakers to change policy.

“The broadband plan has legislative actions, rulemaking ideas and just general suggestions. What we have been trying to do is push this forward by not only working with Congress, but also convening open meetings to bring together private industry and non-profits to find solutions,” said Chopra.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration Chief of Staff, Thomas C. Power, provided the group with an update on the broadband technology opportunities program. Many of the grantees, he said, have begun to deploy their networks and numerous last-mile providers have been in contact with middle-mile projects with attachment inquiries.

“We have also commissioned a multi-year study on our grants to see how they are affecting the community in which they have been deployed in,” Powers said. “We want to know how these projects are promoting broadband adoption along with their overall effect on the community.”

Powers then offered an overview of the recently released National Broadband Map, adding that, “since the launch of the map many providers that would not initially provide data on their availability have come forward and are now asking to have their networks included.”

Presenting a non-governmental view, Rebecca Arbogast, Managing Director of Stifel Nicolaus & Co., called the national broadband plan ambitious. She said that before the plan came out, many investors were worried that the FCC would recommend that cable companies have their networks unbundled to expand access. This unbundling would have allowed independent Internet Service Providers access to use the cables installed by the cable companies, similar to regulation that first allowed independent telephone companies access to existing phone lines.

“The plan was respectful of existing investment and the private sector,” Arbogast said, “and it provided new areas where broadband could be applied.”

Investors were pleased that the goal of the plan was not just expanding the network, but to get people to do more on broadband. Abrogast echoed statements made by Levin and Chopra, saying that the economic value of broadband lays in the applications that run on top of it.

In regards to the broadcast spectrum, Arbogast said that investors were split on the issue.

Joseph Waz, Senior Vice President External Affairs & Public Policy Counsel at Comcast, said that while improving network speed was not the sole goal of the broadband plan, by showing how broadband applied to various applications networks would improve to meet those new needs.

Waz went onto say that cost is no longer one of the largest limiting factors for adoption, but rather applicability.

“We hope through the Comcast Broadband Opportunities Program [a condition of the Comcast-NBC Universal Merger] we can help people learn the value of broadband," said Waz.

Rahul Gaitonde has been writing for since the fall of 2009, and in May of 2010 he became Deputy Editor. He was a fellow at George Mason University’s Long Term Governance Project, a researcher at the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology and worked at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. He holds a Masters of Public Policy from George Mason University, where his research focused on the economic and social benefits of broadband expansion. He has written extensively about Universal Service Fund reform, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and the Broadband Data Improvement Act

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