Universal high-speed broadband and an open Internet are essential to information gathering and dissemination in a world where citizen journalists and bloggers will have an increasingly important role, dead-tree media are transforming into Internet enterprises, and government will open itself up for online scrutiny.
That proved one of the key takeaways from Friday's release of the Knight Foundation/Aspen Institute commission report on the nation's community information needs, which includes journalism as well as access to government information.
Early reads on the report suggested as much, but Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen left no doubt. At an event unveiling the report at the Newseum in Washington, he called universal broadband an "essential need."
Commission co-chair Marissa Mayer is an executive with Google, which has been a big proponent of network neutrality and high-speed broadband. She drove home that point in her remarks. She pointed out that a third of rural communities don't have access to the Internet, and that 37% of adults do not have access to broadband at home. "We cannot stand idle and allow for large groups of people to be disadvantaged."
Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, a member of the commission that produced the report, told the Newseum audience during a panel session about the report that the fundamental freedom of an open Internet is "the platform of the new journalism."
FCC Chairman and former top Hundt aide Julius Genachowski announced at a speech to the Brookings Institution last week his intention to expand and codify the FCC's Internet openness principles. Hundt said the report was not written to support that initiative, but said: "Those fundamental freedoms need to be supported in a bipartisan way. He does need to get the votes." (The other two Democrats on the commission have already said they support him, so the votes should not be a problem).
Genachowksi was also in attendance Friday. In fact, he was the first public official to receive the report-ceremonially at least-since he already had an advance copy, and to comment on it publicly.
"We hear loud and clear the assessment of the Knight Commission that this is a critical juncture requiring new thinking and aggressive action."
He said he hoped the private sector would meet "many of the challenges" the report identified, but said he expected the FCC would play a "positive and constructive" role as well.
Genachowksi said the goals of universal broadband, digital literacy and a free and open Internet were "essential to the intellectual and economic nourishment of our communities and to democratic governance," and added that "we are working hard on these issues.
The commission this week held a marathon meeting--the chairman's own term--on the current state of its national broadband plan.
That meeting, too, emphasized the value of universal and high-speed broadband to full civic participation.