The top 10 higher-ed tech stories of 2010: No. 5

The plan seeks to bring broadband internet to 100 million U.S. homes by 2020.

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.”

Community college decision makers were encouraged by the FCC’s inclusion of robust high-speed internet networks on two-year campuses, which soon could be a central location for locals who don’t have broadband internet at home.

The FCC asked Congress for enough funding to bring high-speed internet to all public community colleges and maintain the networks. Only 16 percent of the 3,439 community college campuses in the U.S. have access to the kind of high-speed internet service that is available at more than 90 percent of research universities, according to the FCC.

A new analysis of Census data, released Nov. 8 by the Commerce Department, shows the need for a federal broadband strategy. The U.S. still faces a significant gap in residential broadband use that breaks down along incomes, education levels, and other socio-economic factors, even as subscriptions among American households overall grew sevenfold between 2001 and 2009.

What’s more, even when controlling for key socio-economic characteristics, the U.S. continues to confront a racial gap in residential broadband use, with non-Hispanic white Americans and Asian-Americans more likely to go online using a high-speed connection than African-Americans and Hispanics.

The national broadband plan that federal regulators delivered to Congress in March doesn’t go far enough to satisfy some experts, who warn that the United States would still trail other industrialized nations in prices and speed, reports the Associated Press. That’s because the proposal fails to bring adequate competition to a duopoly broadband market now controlled by giant phone and cable TV companies, critics say.

According to the New America Foundation, a 100-megabit broadband connection costs as little $16 per month in Sweden and $24 per month in Korea, while service that is only half that fast costs $145 per month in the U.S. “What I want is big bandwidth for cheap prices,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative. “But the plan punts on competition.”

One development that could help spur broadband expansion is the opening up of television “white spaces” for use as high-speed internet conduits. The FCC voted unanimously Sept. 23 to allow the use of these so-called “white spaces” between TV stations to deliver broadband connections that can function like Wi-Fi networks on steroids. The agency is calling the new technology “super Wi-Fi” and hopes to see devices with the new technology start to appear within a year.

Campus officials also will be closely watching the agency’s efforts to enforce “net neutrality,” which has important implications for schools. By a 3-2 vote in December, the FCC passed new rules meant to prevent internet service providers from discriminating against certain types of online content, with all three of the commission’s Democrats voting for the measure and both Republicans voting against it. The new rules might not be the safeguard that schools and colleges were hoping for, however, as net-neutrality supporters believe the new policy might lead to “bidding wars” that could leave smaller campuses without access to a high-speed web connection.

Related links:

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

FCC’s plans a potential boon for community colleges

Competition missing from broadband plan, some say

Federal CTO calls for ‘student-led innovation’ in developing broadband apps

Could net-neutrality ruling hinder online education?

FCC votes to reconsider broadband regulations

Broadband grants mean millions more for higher education

FCC: Web speed half of what is promised

FCC seeks input on rules for online services

Coming soon: ‘Super Wi-Fi’ connectivity?

FCC opens up unused TV signals for broadband

House Democrats punt on net neutrality

Troubling gaps still exist in broadband use

FCC to vote on net neutrality rules

Higher ed disappointed by net-neutrality ‘loopholes’

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