Harness Communications Technology to Benefit our Country

Preserving what has brought us tremendous innovation, while filling the gaps in the news systems of local communities

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Genachowski_Julius2.jpgEighty years ago, 1931, radio ruled the airwaves, but a new technology—television—
was on the verge of transforming America. At the end of that year, RCA began
transmitting experimental television broadcasts from a small antenna at the top
of the recently finished Empire State Building. CBS News’ visionary president,
Fred Friendly, was among those who would later point out that this emerging new
technology has the power to dramatically change our world for the better. Friendly
called television “the greatest teaching tool since the printing press.”

FCC Chairman Newt Minow’s famous speech delivered
50 years ago is often remembered for its sentence about
TV as a “vast wasteland.” The speech itself was focused
on the broad opportunities and challenges presented by
the new communications technologies of the day: satellite
communications, cable television, as well as broadcast TV.
New technologies, Minow said, could “connect people in
Chicago and the Congo.”

Minow and Friendly—and I’ve been lucky to know both—
believed that it was critical for our nation to harness the
power of communications technology to benefit all people.
Today, no technology offers more potential than broadband
Internet. I’m encouraged to see that many broadcasters are
tackling the challenges and seizing the opportunities of a
multiplatform broadband world—seeking to reach the audience
where the audience is going—experimenting with new
technologies, new platforms, and new business models.

Almost two years ago, catalyzed by a report from a bipartisan
Knight Commission, I asked Steve Waldman to lead a
cross-agency team at the FCC to examine the information
needs of communities in the digital age.

The communications landscape has changed dramatically
with the entry and widespread use of broadband—on
computers, on smartphones, on tablets. We asked: What’s
the state of play, and are there recommendations for how to
ensure that communities in the 21st century have the news
and information they need and want?

The resulting report, issued earlier this year—“The
Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media
Landscape in a Broadband Age”—concluded that new
technology is creating a world of opportunity to empower
journalists and keep the public informed as never before.

Much is going well when it comes to the Internet and
journalism. Digital innovations have made the gathering
and distribution of news and information faster, less
expensive and more democratic. In our nation’s history, we
have never had a greater opportunity to realize our founding
vision of a vibrant democracy bolstered by a strong free
press and informed citizens.

But while celebrating digital innovating, we should nonetheless
confront the challenges that remain. The report
identifies an emerging gap in local news reporting that has
not yet been fully filled by digital media. While the amount
that state governments spent grew 20% from 2003-2008,
the number of reporters covering legislatures dropped by a
third—a terrible formula if one wants to hold government
accountable. Twenty-seven states have no reporters covering
Washington, D.C.

This matters, because if citizens don’t get local news
and information, the health of our democracy
suffers. Journalism provides a vital check on corruption by those with power. The less
quality local reporting we have, the less
likely we are to learn about government
misdeeds, schools that fail children,
hospitals that mistreat patients or
factories that pollute the water.

Journalism is essential to accountability. That’s why Thomas Jeff erson
said he’d rather have “newspapers without
government” than “a government
without newspapers.” The technology has
changed, but the point endures.

But the report did not just stop at describing
problems. It suggests thoughtful and practical
initiatives that help address the challenges it identifies and does so recognizing the essential constraints
of the First Amendment, particularly vital in this area of
news and information.

At the FCC, we’ve recently implemented one of the
report’s recommendations—purging the Fairness Doctrine
from our books. I’ve asked the FCC’s Media Bureau
to move ahead with the recommendation to give religious
and other noncommercial broadcasters more flexibility to
raise money for charities in their communities or around
the world. And most recently, the Commission took its first
step to modernize television broadcast public inspection
files by having the information put online instead of just in
filing cabinets.

We have also gotten support from both broadcasters and
public interest groups for the idea that there should be a
streamlined and non-burdensome online mechanism for
broadcasters to disclose key information about their service
to their communities. In testimony at a recent FCC event,
Jonathan Blake, representing leading broadcast companies,
said that such proposals in the report “will serve the public
interest.” Broadcasters, he said, “are committed to serving
the ‘information needs of communities.’ They accept the
responsibility to do so and are willing to provide reasonable
and meaningful information to the public about how they
implement this responsibility.”

Importantly, we continue to make strides on a fundamental
recommendation of the report—achieving universal
broadband access for all Americans. The report has no
more important recommendation.

Ubiquitous broadband—wired and wireless—is an
economic imperative for the United States. Our broadband
economy is a bright spot in these challenging economic
times. The broadband economy is growing and creating
jobs. It is helping not only new businesses grow and compete,
but also empowering existing businesses to expand
their markets on new platforms.

! at’s true of existing news and media businesses as well,
more and more of which are innovating on new platforms,
seeking to reach their audiences however they are choosing
to read, watch or interact. And the larger the online and
mobile broadband markets, the more of a return on investment
news companies can achieve.

Ubiquitous broadband is essential not only for a healthy
for a healthy economy, but democracy. As recent events
overseas have powerfully confirmed, realtime,
two-way interactive communications are
essential in the 21st century to the fundamental
rights of expression and assembly,
and essential to an informed citizenry.

There’s much we have to do to achieve
universal and ubiquitous broadband.
We must unleash more spectrum for
mobile broadband, helping drive continued
growth in a thriving part of our
economy, and helping avoid consumer
frustration over dropped connections
and higher prices.

And we must close the broadband deployment
and adoption gaps in the U.S. Right
now, about 20 million Americans live in areas
without broadband infrastructure, and 100 million
Americans don’t subscribe to broadband at home.

In the most significant policy step ever taken to connect all
Americans to high-speed Internet, wherever they live, the FCC
recently voted unanimously to comprehensively reform its
Universal Service Fund and intercarrier compensation systems.

These reforms create a new Connect America Fund with
an annual budget of no more than $4.5 billion, which will
extend broadband infrastructure to the millions of Americans
who currently have no access to broadband. This is a
once-in-a-generation overhaul of universal service, keeping
faith with the nation’s long commitment to connecting all
Americans to communications services.

Improving broadband infrastructure and increasing
broadband access will drive our overall economy, and will
help inform and educate everyone in our country. Increasing
broadband access will provide specific benefits to news
entrepreneurs and businesses seeking to make the math
work in these challenging and changing times.

Getting to 100 percent broadband adoption from today’s
level would represent a 50 percent increase in the online
audience in the United States. The larger the online market,
the greater the scale—and the more likely a news and information
business can succeed online.

If we continue to preserve the conditions that have
already brought us tremendous innovation, while filling
the significant gaps that have also appeared in the news
systems of local communities, we will as a country meet
our obligation to harness communications technology to
benefit all Americans.

Julius Genachowski is chairman of the Federal
Communications Commission.