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Harness Communications Technology to Benefit our Country

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Eighty 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.