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Editorial: The Next Hard Date

6/13/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

The FCC continued to push toward last week's DTV finish line—make that starting line—but it will have no time to catch its breath before it shifts its focus to another digital transition and another Feb. 17 hard date.

The agency will begin to tackle the Herculean task of figuring out how to get broadband to the 10 million or so people who don't have access to it, and to get more of the folks who do have access to join the digital revolution. The challenge will be to find a spur to deployment that does not discourage the private-sector investment that will be crucial to its success.

The commission must come up with a plan by Feb. 17, 2010.

Groups representing a rainbow of minorities told the FCC last week that broadband access is critical to closing the economic divide, and said that soon, minorities will be the majority. Tapping into that talent pool is critical to economic recovery, they said, and without broadband literacy, bridging that divide will be impossible. We agree.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps has said that charting the broadband course will be the most important thing the FCC has ever done, and he is not overstating the case. That's because it goes far beyond communications or entertainment or even education into every corner of the economy—from medicine to energy to just about everything else we do, from shopping to banking to finding a mate.

Community is not about geography; it is about electronic connectivity. Some agencies have already made it easier and cheaper to do business online. Unless we make sure that every school and library has the Internet, and as many households as humanly possible, that will be the equivalent of taxing the least able to pay.

So once the FCC has handled the mop-up operation for the DTV transition, the size and scope of which remains to be determined, it should turn its attention to collecting and processing the best broadband mapping data available. It also must work on coordinating the efforts of the NTIA and USDA with that plan and, perhaps, come up with a broadband education campaign similar to the NAB's DTV full-court press to push adoption and digital literacy.

Only a little more than half the population subscribes to an ISP, though over 90% have the option. That has to change.

It is a daunting task, but the upside is not only more ubiquitous broadband but, ideally, an FCC with less time to get into mischief. It is also a perfect time for the installation of a new chairman and some new commissioners who would put their own stamp on the agency, so long as that stamp is not a rubber one for new regulations.

With a DTV transition to clean up after, and an infrastructure upgrade challenge the equal of rural electrification or interstate roadways, the commission should have no time to spend on micromanaging content or rehashing arguments about anachronistic regulatory restraints from another century.

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