In March 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)unveiled a National Broadband Plan setting the country’s telecommunications and technology priorities for the next decade, and establishing high-speed Internet as America’s leading communications network.
The FCC’s ambitious blueprint proposed “connecting all corners of the nation” with a robust and affordable broadband communications system that will transform the economy and American society, changing the way we educate children, deliver health care, manage energy, ensure public safety, engage government and compete in the global marketplace.
The 376-page groundbreaking initiative calls for allotting huge amounts of spectrum to enable the expanded use of mobile devices, creating split-second access to health care information and online classrooms, developing a nationwide network for emergency first responders, transforming the Universal Service Fund to ensure broadband access for all Americans, and using technology to modernize the electric grid. It also proposed reforms relating to competition and the allocation and use of government assets.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the initiative, developed under a congressional mandate, required a dedicated team of close to 100 people from a wide variety of fields, including doctors, lawyers, engineers, economists, Wall Street analysts and entrepreneurs, as well as former and current FCC leaders. Blair Levin, who previously served as FCC chief of staff, returned as the executive director of the broadband initiative, which he called a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Among the FCC career leaders instrumental in drafting the plan and now engaged in implementing it are (pictured top to bottom of this article) Julius Knapp, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology, Ruth Milkman, chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, and Sharon Gillett, chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau.
Knapp, a 36-year FCC veteran, said the plan represents a revolution in communications and will “change people’s lives.”
“This is one of the most monumental things ever done at this agency,” said Knapp. “This will be as transformative as electricity, the telephone and the interstate highway system.”
Mary Beth Richards, a former FCC special counsel, said the team engaged in the most transparent, innovative and data-driven process in agency history as it drafted the comprehensive plan. They spent six intense months soliciting information from industry, consumers and other interested parties, working through technical details and sorting out difficult policy options.
“Team members created the FCC’s first blog to gather public input on the plan, attracting more than a half million page views and generating 1,200 official comments,” she said. “They used new media tools to help citizens share over 680 concrete policy ideas and comments, many of which made it into the final plan, and interacted with the FCC’s 300,000 Twitter followers.”
In addition, Richards said the FCC staff collaborated with more than 25 federal agencies and councils and conducted some 36 staff-level workshops-all streamed online. Now, she said, Knapp, Milkman, Gillett and other FCC employees are involved in putting the plan into action through adoption of new FCC policies and discussions with Congress.
Erik Garr, the former general manager of the broadband initiative, described the three FCC bureau chiefs as “anchors” of the project. “They played critical roles every step of the way, providing their expertise, reviewing content, and guiding and shaping the final product,” he said.
Knapp, said Garr, was the top engineer and foremost technical expert who helped determine costs and infrastructure options, interacted closely with counterparts from the private sector and brought years of institutional knowledge to the table.
Milkman, he said, brought substantial technical and legal knowledge to the project, helping to determine spectrum needs and proposed allocations affecting billions of dollars in assets. And Gillett played major roles in developing the universal broadband access recommendations, as well as devising ways to expand high-speed Internet to schools and health care facilities.
Following the plan, the FCC has already made available the most significant amount of unlicensed spectrum in 25 years to enable new technologies like “Super Wi-Fi” and eliminated unnecessary restrictions on the use of certain spectrum bands to enable them to be used for mobile broadband.
In addition, the agency established a process to speed decisions on locating cell towers; significantly lowered the costs and time required to build out broadband by making it easier for communications companies to attach cables and antennas to utility poles; proposed rules to protect consumers from bill shock; initiated action to advance Next Generation 9-1-1 services; launched reform of a program to ensure patients at rural clinics can get broadband-enabled care and consult virtually with specialists anywhere in the country; and modernized and upgraded a program for schools and libraries to obtain faster connections and use wireless education tools.
Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the FCC blueprint is “comprehensive,” will greatly benefit the United States and has become a model for other nations. He said the FCC team overcame many obstacles inherent in dealing with complicated issues involving billions of dollars and many competing interests.
“We, as a nation, have not done something of this magnitude in 20 years,” said Atkinson. “Innovation is at the heart of this plan.”
Julius Knapp, Ruth Milkman and Sharon Gillett were a collective 2011 Service to America Medal finalist for the Citizen Services category.This award recognizes a federal employee for a significant contribution to the nation in activities related to social services (including economic development and assistance, education, health care, housing, labor and transportation). This medal is accompanied by a $3,000 award.