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Remarks of NTIA Chief of Staff Tom Power, "The National Broadband Plan One Year Later"

Conference hosted by the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI) and Georgetown University’s Communication Culture and Technology Program
Washington, D.C.
March 18, 2011

- As Prepared for Delivery -

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today. I especially want to thank my friend and former FCC colleague Bob Atkinson for including me here today.

I’ve been invited to speak on what the Obama administration has accomplished in the year since the FCC adopted the National Broadband Plan, and I’m tempted to begin by stressing the importance of broadband to our economy and society in the context of jobs, education, health care, energy, and so on.  It’s hard to overstate the role of broadband in those contexts, but I suspect none of that is lost on this audience.  So let me jump right to the Plan and to the major initiatives that the Administration has been pursuing since its release.

Broadband Availability

The first goal identified in the Plan was straightforward: make faster connections available to more Americans; but the Plan recognizes that broadband needs within a community vary, for example, between a household, a hospital, a small business, or a university.  One of the most prominent broadband accomplishments of the Obama administration to date has been the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) at NTIA and the Broadband Initiatives Program at the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.  With a combined $7 billion in grants and loan authority, these two programs made awards to communities all across the country, based on the specific needs of those communities and following a very rigorous due diligence process to ensure that federal dollars would be wisely invested. 

At NTIA, we focused on building middle-mile capacity that would spark private investment by last-mile providers, whether incumbents or new entrants.  NTIA’s grantees are now deploying middle-mile infrastructure in areas with tens of millions of households and millions of businesses, including about 100,000 miles of new or upgraded network coverage using fiber and wireless technologies.

BTOP also focused on connectivity to community anchor institutions, including schools, libraries, health care providers, and public safety agencies.  Our emphasis on high-speed connectivity for anchor institutions mirrors many of the objectives identified as “National Purposes” in the National Broadband Plan and our BTOP grantees intend to provide high-speed connections directly to tens of thousands of institutions across the country. 

We also provided funding for new and upgraded public computer centers and programs to increase broadband adoption. The National Broadband Plan highlighted the gaps that exist with respect to broadband adoption across the country and within communities, and so we are very eager to see how our BTOP grants help to bridge those gaps.  In the short term the grants will result in thousands of new or upgraded public computer centers and tens of thousands of new or upgraded public computer workstations, with facilities and training made available to more than one million new users.  But we will be looking for the long-term impact of these projects on broadband adoption.   In fact, grantees were chosen in part based on their commitment to measure the success of their programs – what works and what doesn’t work.  Likewise, NTIA has commissioned a multiyear study to assess the impact of all of our grant awards on broadband availability and adoption, as well the economic and social benefits. The results of this evaluation will help inform the government of the return on our investment, and identify factors that can inform future private and/or public sector investments.

A final point on availability –  the National Broadband Plan made Tribes a point of emphasis, so I am pleased to report that six Tribal authorities received BTOP grants and there are about 60 more grants that will directly benefit Tribal communities.  And RUS made another 12 grants to Tribal communities.  And Tribal consultation continues.

Spectrum, Wireless, and Public Safety

Another major recommendation of the National Broadband Plan concerns the need to make more spectrum available for wireless broadband providers.   Last year, President Obama committed to make available 500 megahertz of Federal and non-Federal spectrum over the next 10 years and the National Broadband Plan mirrored this approach.  The initiative – to nearly double the amount of commercial spectrum over the next decade – will spur investment, economic growth, and job creation while supporting the growing demand for wireless broadband. As we identify spectrum for commercial use, we will also take care to protect vital government missions.

In November, NTIA released two complementary reports.  The Ten-Year Plan and Timetable identified 2,200 megahertz of spectrum for evaluation, the process for evaluating these candidate bands, and the steps necessary to make the selected spectrum available for wireless broadband services.  In addition, NTIA released the fast-track report identifying some spectrum reallocation opportunities that exist in the next five years – a total of 115 megahertz – contingent upon the allocation of resources for necessary reallocation activities.

We then identified the next spectrum band to be evaluated for potential repurposing to commercial use –  the 1755-1850 MHz band – which we know is beachfront property in the eyes of commercial providers, and we will complete our review of this band by the end of September. 

As Aneesh (Chopra) discussed earlier, in his State of the Union address the President called for a National Wireless Initiative to make available high-speed wireless services — “4G” technology — to at least 98 percent of Americans. This will make it possible for businesses to achieve that goal, while freeing up spectrum through incentive auctions, spurring innovation, and creating a nationwide, interoperable wireless network for public safety. 

Public safety occupied a full chapter of the National Broadband Plan. The President’s initiative proposes an investment of $10.7 billion to support this critical effort, including the reallocation of the D Block for public safety and $500 million for research and development into innovative technologies. 

NTIA previously jumpstarted this effort by using BTOP funding to grant seven applications from state and local governments that received waiver authority from the FCC to build out public safety networks using 700 MHz spectrum. These are a critical set of demonstration projects that provide a head start on President Obama’s commitment to support the development of a nationwide, interoperable public safety wireless broadband network.

In addition, since the release of the National Broadband Plan the Departments of Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as the FCC’s Emergency Response Interoperability Center, have collaborated on issues key to public safety broadband deployment.  Within DOC, NTIA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have created the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Program, which is building a demonstration LTE network for public safety testing purposes in Boulder, Colorado.  

Additionally, the Administration is targeting federal R&D investment in cutting-edge areas aimed at more efficient spectrum use by public safety agencies and others, including the development of cognitive radio technology and software-defined radios.  

National Broadband Map

The National Broadband Plan was informed by substantial research conducted by the FCC staff that produced a huge amount of data relating to broadband deployment and adoption.  Likewise, the Administration wants all of its initiatives, whether related to broadband or any other subject area, to be data-driven and informed by the best available research.  And President Obama has pledged to maximize transparency in the Federal government and to publicly disseminate as much data as possible, as widely as possible.  Richard Thaler in the New York Times last Sunday wrote about some of the Administration’s efforts in this regard, specifically with respect to the Administration’s practice of simply putting the raw data out there and leaving it to the public – whether commercial players, academics, or anyone else – to put those data to good use. 

For broadband, the paradigm of this practice is the National Broadband Map – the first public, searchable nationwide map of broadband Internet availability. Underlying the map is a database including more than 25 million searchable records. Though launched just one month ago, www.broadbandmap.gov  has already had half a million unique users.

To create the map, NTIA awarded grants to 56 states, territories, and District of Columbia or their designees to collect and verify broadband data. Grantees collected data from 1,650 unique broadband companies and then used a range of analysis and verification methods.  We anticipate grantees will share best practices and improve their validation methods. NTIA then added an additional layer of review before integrating the datasets into the map. We will update the map every six months based on input from the grantees.

The map itself serves many types of people:

  • Consumers and small businesses can find the broadband providers serving their area.
  • Local officials can see how broadband in their community fares in comparison to others, helping economic developers attract businesses or address barriers to investment.
  • Private sector companies can integrate the data into their own online offerings – for example, a website that lists homes on the market could include a description of broadband availability by using our mapping data.
  • Researchers have downloaded data for additional analysis, beyond what the tools on the website enable.

Researchers tell us that the release of the map and the data – particularly the scale of the data – is unprecedented, even overwhelming.  We look forward to the public – including researchers and industry – helping us make sense of the data and improving the accuracy of the data by, among other things, using the map’s crowdsourcing tools.

The map also includes data about broadband connections at community anchor institutions which, as I mentioned earlier, was a point of emphasis in making BTOP grants.  A report by state education technology directors concluded that most schools need a connection of 50 to 100 Mbps per 1,000 students, but the data from the map show that two-thirds of surveyed schools subscribe to speeds lower than 25 Mbps. In addition, only four percent of libraries reported subscribing to speeds greater than 25 Mbps. So although we are gratified that BTOP will help meet the broadband needs of community anchor institutions, we know that many anchor institutions remain thirsty for greater speeds.

The data also tell us that somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of Americans lack access to Internet service at speeds that currently qualify as broadband, which is another reminder that our broadband challenge needs to be addressed on multiple fronts.

The National Broadband Map was just one component of the State Broadband Data and Development (SBDD) program.  The other piece consisted of grants to states and territories to support their efforts to identify and address obstacles to broadband deployment and adoption.  Our State Broadband Initiative has lead to coordination among the states, allowing them to exchange best practices and otherwise learn from each other, through webinars and other broadband-enabled means. 

Digital Nation Report

NTIA continues with its own research.  A few weeks ago we released the results of a broadband survey of approximately 54,000 households – the largest survey of its kind. While home broadband adoption increased over the past year – from 63.5 percent to 68.2 percent - that still leaves approximately one-third of Americans cut off from the digital economy. The digital divide persists along historic demographic lines, with minorities, seniors, people with disabilities, and rural Americans lagging in broadband use.

NTIA joined with the Economics and Statistics Administration to analyze last year’s survey results further by adjusting for socio-economic factors like income and education.  We found that even though these factors drive broadband adoption, they are not the sole determinants. Significant gaps in broadband adoption persist along racial, ethnic, and geographic lines – even after accounting for socio-economic and geographic factors: for example, White households had higher broadband adoption rates than African American and Hispanic households, and urban residents were more likely than their rural counterparts to adopt broadband.

The most commonly cited reason for not having broadband at home is the perception that it is not needed (46 percent). The second most common reason is that broadband is too expensive (25 percent). In rural America, the lack of broadband availability is a larger reason for non-adoption than in urban areas (9.4 percent vs. 1 percent).

These findings underscore that there is no simple ‘one size fits all’ solution to closing the digital divide. A combination of approaches makes sense, including outreach programs targeted to populations that are lagging in adoption.  And that is exactly what many of our BTOP broadband adoption projects are doing.  

Internet Policy and Digital Literacy

In identifying challenges to greater broadband adoption, the National Broadband Plan quoted someone who said they were “worried about all the bad things that can happen” on the Internet.  The Digital Nation report confirmed that some people are scared by the Internet and confused by technology.  So the Administration has been taking steps to ensure that we continue to have an Internet environment that encourages innovation and creativity but that also fosters trust with users.

Most notably, NTIA is playing a leading role in the Commerce Department’s Internet Policy Task Force, created by Secretary Locke. The Department is engaged in a broad review of the four public policy challenges facing the Internet: (1) privacy; (2) cybersecurity; (3) balanced copyright protection; and (4) ensuring the global free flow of information.  

Our decision to address this range of Internet issues stems from the significant and growing social and economic role that the Internet plays in our lives. Domestic online transactions are currently estimated to total $3.5 trillion annually.  Between 1998 and 2008, domestic IT jobs grew by 26 percent, four times faster than U.S. employment as a whole.  By 2018, IT employment is expected to grow by another 22 percent. 

We are guided by two dominant principles.

First is trust. It is imperative for the continued growth of the Internet that we preserve the trust of all actors.  Second, we want to preserve a multi-stakeholder model for dealing with these issues. Multi-stakeholder organizations have played a major role in the design and operation of the Internet and are responsible for its success.  Government does not have all the answers, but the government does have a key role to play by convening stakeholders to work together to tackle challenging problems, like privacy.

Both industry and public interest groups agree that online consumer privacy should be strengthened. But we need to bolster privacy in a manner that continues to ensure the Web remains a platform for innovation and economic growth.

In December, we released a privacy report with initial recommendations, outlining a framework to increase protection of consumers’ data while supporting innovation and evolving technology. One of our recommendations was the adoption of baseline privacy principles concerning how online companies collect and use personal information, a consumer online “bill of rights.” With additional public comment, we are now preparing a final document we hope to release later this spring as a statement of Administration policy in this area.

Among other things, and as NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling announced earlier this week, we will work with Congress on legislation to protect privacy, including giving the FTC the authority to enforce any baseline protections.  Legislation should also provide incentives for the development of codes of conduct and could include providing the FTC with the authority to offer a safe harbor for companies that implement codes of conduct consistent with the baseline protections.

To further enhance trust in broadband, the National Broadband Plan recommended that the Administration develop a digital literacy portal. NTIA is spearheading an interagency effort to launch such a portal in the spring that will aggregate existing resources for practitioners - such as librarians, trainers and community volunteers - who are helping Americans enhance skills employers require in the Internet-based economy.  And the Department of Education has initiated an inter-agency project called the “Learning Registry,” an informal collaboration among several federal agencies that share the same goal: making federal learning resources and primary source materials easier to find, access, and integrate into educational environments.

On a related front, the National Broadband Plan recommended that the Federal Trade Commission make additional resources available to help consumers stay safe online.  The Administration supports the FTC’s efforts, including the OnGuardOnLine.gov program to better educate consumers how to protect themselves online.  The FTC resources include the “Net Cetera Outreach Toolkit” and “Heads-Up,” a guidebook for kids. 

Smart Grid and Energy Consumption

The National Broadband Plan highlighted the vital role that broadband plays in the development of smart grid technology.  Here, the Department of Energy provided $3.4 billion in funding under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to 100 smart grid projects). These projects leverage existing broadband infrastructure and build new infrastructure to improve the reliability of the electric grid, efficiently integrate renewable generation, reduce peak demand and support adoption of electric vehicles.  In addition, the Department of Energy  has released two reports on smart grid, and their website links to several smart grid clearinghouses.

Creating Economic Opportunity

In the area of economic opportunity, the National Broadband Plan recommended that the Small Business Administration should develop resource partner programs to assist small business in the broadband world. SBA has done just that.  Among other things, SBA supports a resource partner known as SCORE, which has enhanced its efforts to help small businesses with online advice (http://www.score.org/index.html). In addition, they are building a web services platform that will allow for open data sets so that external developers can build applications useful to small businesses.

The Economic Development Administration has a number of initiatives underway, including an interactive microsite that provides resources to both economic development practitioners and local stakeholders, including broadband best practices.  And EDA is seeking to measure the availability and usage of broadband at all major research parks in the U.S. and associated economic benefits.

Health Care

As the National Broadband Plan noted, broadband can play an important role in health care. Federal agencies are collaborating to use broadband-enabled applications to expand current access to quality health care. The Rural Health Care IT Task force is working with other agencies to ensure adequate funding is available to meet the needs of healthcare delivery locations where existing networks are unable to support innovative healthcare applications.  The Department of Health and Human Services is exploring ways to extend broadband innovation to aging Americans.

Government Performance

The National Broadband Plan recommended that the Administration develop a strategy to guide agencies on cloud computing, and this year the U.S. Chief Information Officer released the Federal Cloud Computing Strategy.   And last year the President signed into law the Teleworking Enhancement Act, to step up efforts to implement telework to ensure continuity of operations, reduce management costs and improve employees’ ability to balance their work and life commitments. 

Civic Engagement

The Administration has also taken numerous steps toward transparency and accountability. New services allow the public to track how their money is used to deliver service back to them (www.whitehouse.gov/open, http://www.USAspending.gov, http://it.usaspending.gov/, http://www.recovery.gov).    And all major federal agencies have a web page with information about transparency, participation and collaboration opportunities.   Also, the website Data.gov was established to increase public access to high value, machine-readable datasets generated by the executive branch of the federal government.

Disabilities Legislation

Last, I’d like to highlight the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which was signed into law by President Obama in October. The law sets new standards so that people with disabilities can take advantage of the technology our economy depends on. It will make it easier for people who are deaf, blind or live with a visual disability to perform tasks that many of us take for granted – such as sending an email on a smart phone or navigating a TV menu.

In closing, the initiatives I’ve outlined demonstrate both the progress that we are making and challenges that remain.  NTIA and the Obama administration remain committed to addressing these challenges and, in the words of the National Broadband Plan, working to bring the power and the promise of broadband to us all.