FCC plan could bring high-speed web to campuses, communities

Genachowski lauded the FCC's plan to expand high-speed web connections across the US.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled the plan to expand broadband connections across the U.S.

College faculty whose campuses are surrounded by neighborhoods that rely on antiquated dial-up internet connections are hoping the Federal Communication Commission’s National Broadband Plan will bring faster connections that won’t send students running to their campus’s high-speed network every time they need to complete an assignment online.

The plan, unveiled March 16 after a year of intense deliberation among the FCC and various stakeholders, seeks to bring broadband internet to 100 million U.S. homes by 2020. Fourteen million Americans don’t have broadband access, even if they want a high-speed option, according to federal estimates.

Ultra high-speed connections—at least 1 gigabit per second, or 100 times faster than a typical broadband network—also would be made available at “anchor institutions” such as hospitals, libraries, and colleges, according to the FCC’s plan.

The FCC did not detail the cost of the broadband expansion, but commissioners have said auctioning portions of national airwaves would help fund the massive program. That money would add to the $7.2 billion allocated for high-speed internet in the economic stimulus package passed by Congress last year.

“The status quo is not good enough for America,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who mentioned the broadband plan’s potential for expanding the use of eBooks in education during his March 16 address. “If we don’t act, we are at risk.”

The FCC launched a web site detailing the National Broadband Plan and offering a “spectrum dashboard,” where visitors can research how local broadband spectrums are being used, and what spectrum is available in nearby counties. The site also features a “consumer broadband test” where Americans can test the quality of their web connection.

High-speed internet has become commonplace on U.S. college campuses of every size, while students and faculty members who live in towns around campus sometimes have spotty or nonexistent broadband connections, making the basics of modern-day distance learning impossible.

Aron Goldman, an adjunct faculty member of the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, said academics and students in nearby Shutesbury, Mass.—a 10-minute drive from the university—are relegated to dial-up connections that make it difficult to complete the most basic online exercises, such as sending eMail messages with large attachments.

“It’s not a luxury,” said Goldman, who served on a panel last October that discussed sparse high-speed web connections in western Massachusetts with Gov. Deval Patrick. “It’s as essential as electricity … especially for students.”

Goldman said course-management system web sites assembled by faculty members are essentially inaccessible away from UMass Amherst’s high-speed web network. Dial-up connections in Shutesbury and other towns in the western part of the state don’t allow students to watch video clips assigned by their professors, he said.

“It just doesn’t compute with people,” Goldman said. “When you tell someone you don’t have [broadband internet], they think you just choose not to have the service because you’re some weird radical or something. … There’s disbelief that this problem even exists.”

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