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Live Blogging the February Open Commission Meeting

February 18th, 2010 by George Krebs

Welcome to our live blog. The meeting will begin at 3PM EDT. In the meantime, check out our Open Meetings page where you will be able to see a live stream of the meeting and the slides used in today's presentation. We will also be live tweeting the meeting here. If you're on Twitter yourself, you can join the conversation by using #FCCopen.

3:11pm EDT
By any standard, we are on countdown. There are only twenty-seven days to go until the Broadband Plan is to be submitted. This is the last Open Commission meeting before that big day. This is the last time the Broadband Team will present in front of the Chairman and all four commissioners. The National Purposes Team will present today. They cover portions of the plan relating to the impact of broadband on healthcare, education, energy and the environment, government and civic engagement, public safety, and economic opportunity. They will identify the gaps that exist in these areas and they will provide a framework for their coming recommendations. Chairman Julius Genachowski and Commissioners Copps, McDowell, Clyburn, and Baker, representing the FCC’s top brass, will give them insight and suggestions. 

Before their presentation, we will have an update on the Commission’s continuing work in Haiti. (For more information on this front, see International Bureau Chief Mindel de la Torre’s superb, on-the-ground updates on our Reboot Blog.) We will also hear a presentation on FCC reform.

3:48pm EDT
Haiti update
Mindel de la Torre gives an idea of what it was like on the ground. It’s difficult for someone living here to imagine what the conditions are like in Haiti right now, she says. The pictures included on their slides provide a sense of how entirely destructive the earthquake was. Ms. de la Torre thanks the team from the Commission who went down to help out. Jamie Barnett, Chief of the Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau, discusses the team’s accomplishments in Haiti, including assisting in teleconferences and many of the communications in connecting back and forth to the U.S. (with organizations such as USAID). In concluding, Mr. Barnett says, “It’s going to be a long process in restoring their communications.”
 
Ms. de la Torre gives a report on “key findings” from the team. Rebuilding efforts of wireless cell sites and wireline infrastructure are ongoing. She shows a collage of images – “a television station that collapsed completely.” A yellow, electronic news gathering car, saved the life of the station owner. Behind the building site, they set up a mobile radio station where the station owner gives radio commentary on Manchester United soccer games and shows movies on his small television viewed by a small gathering in his community. “Anything to make the people feel better,” she says. The Commission has issued 83 wavers representing 716 TV / radio stations to do fundraising for Haiti.
 
4:35pm EDT
Reform
Mary-Beth Richards, Special Counsel for FCC Reform, gives a rundown of reform efforts at the FCC. The Commission will vote on two items suggested by the group Ms. Richards leads. One area she highlights is public safety. The faults in communication around the public safety community is well known.  To address this, Ms. Richards unveils the Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC), to reside here at the FCC. ERIC will facilitate public safety communications throughout the country in part by setting standards and giving this crucial public safety need, a centralized hub. Among other areas, she notes that we will bring in a Chief Data Officer to make the Commission more data driven. Also, a rule the Commission will vote on will make Ex-Parte notices available more quickly to the public and to the staff, and will require these notices be submitted online.
 
The Chairman and the commissioners all assent to the recommended reform measures on e-filing procedure and ex parte.
 
5:03pm EEDT
E-rate motion
In the last item to be considered before the broadband update, the Commission will consider improvements to the hugely successful E-rate program. In fact, the E-rate is related to broadband as it provides subsidized high speed Internet access for schools and libraries as a recognition of the vital role Internet access plays in the public sphere.
 
Regina Brown, attorney advisor in the Wireline Competition Bureau, explains the vote. “This waver will allow schools the option to open their facilities to the general public to utilize services and facilities, supported by E-rate, during non-operating hours such as afterschool hours, on the weekends, on school holidays, or during the summer months when school is not in session.”
 
The motion is widely lauded by the Commission. “In times of economic crisis, having broad community access to broadband is vital,” Chairman Genachowski says. “Broadband connectivity is lagging in rural, minority and tribal communities.” He notes the wide people who will benefit greatly: “The unemployed searching for work, seniors looking for health information and citizens using government services,” among others.
 
5:12pm EDT
Broadband
In opening this section of the meeting the Chairman acknowledges the hard work of the team. They came into the office during the massive snowstorm, underscoring their dedication. “You’re out of jeans & snow boots,” he quips.
 
Executive Director Blair Levin frames their task as solving a mystery. Why have some embraced broadband but others, similarly situated, have not. Some sectors have a “diffusion lag” in adopting broadband. Why? “The team,” he says, will “present ways we need to act to remove the barriers, overcome the diffusion lag, and capture the opportunities others are already seizing.”
 
With that, Mr. Levin cedes the stage to National Purposes lead Kristen Kane. The goal of National purposes is to “offer a plan for how our country can utilize broadband to have these sectors perform at a higher level.” She says, “What you’ll hear today is the opportunities that broadband presents, secondly the major gaps preventing our realizing these opportunities, and then finally the working recommendations to address those gaps.”
 
To begin, the team lays out a vision for “high performance America.”  This includes:
  • Making government more effective, efficient, and transparent
  • Ensuring that investments are aligned and forward thinking
  • Creating the conditions for innovation and America’s competitive advantage in key strategic areas
 
She stresses that integrating broadband into the country’s priorities “can actually change things… Not just the way we do things, but the results we get. New solutions to previously intractable problems.” But, she says, we must act with urgency. “We don’t have that much time.”
 
We will now hear presentations from each area which falls under the umbrella of National Purposes. They will give context for how broadband impacts their field and provide some framework for their upcoming recommendations.
 
Health care
Mohit Kaushal begins with the transformative pairing of broadband and medical care. “[There is an] ever growing array of broadband enabled devices and applications that are improving the effectiveness and efficiency of healthcare,” he says. Providing an anecdote, Dr. Kaushal explains that enabling e-care can result in great savings: $700 billion in potential net savings over the next fifteen to twenty-five years. Cost savings could be even greater in the future.
 
Healthcare recommendations framework:
  • Creating the incentives for broader health IT adoption and innovation
    Modernizing regulations to increase access to care and enable health IT adoption
  • Driving innovative applications and advanced analytics
  • Ensuring all providers have access to affordable broadband
 
Education
Steve Midgely, head of the Education Team, presents a number of anecdotes that showcase the power of broadband in education. Broadband creates “more opportunities for students to learn independently, with teachers acting as their guides,” he says. Online learning is highly effective. New research has shown hybrid learning – combining online learning with in person support – can be significantly more effective than traditional instruction. One of Midgely’s slides reports that only 16% of public community college campuses have high speed broadband compared to 91% of research universities.
 
Education recommendations framework:
  • Upgrading E-rate
  • Supporting and promoting online learning
  • Unlocking the power of data to personalize learning and improve decision-making
 
Energy and the environment
A former energy investor, Nick Sinai leads a team best known around the commission for extolling the virtues of the smart grid for America. “Imagine if consumers and businesses could not only access their energy bill online but could adjust their lights, heating and cooling from their smartphones or a netbook,” he says, eliciting a sense of wonder in the room. He points to the extraordinary potential for new jobs in Internet-based companies that monitor, store and manage energy. “Making our homes, buildings, and vehicles smart will help us meet our national energy goals,” he says. An interesting stat from their slides – providing consumers energy information could reduce consumption by 5 – 15 % (a $60-$180 annual savings per home).
 
Energy and the environment recommendations framework:
  • Integrating broadband into the smart grid
  • Expanding consumer access to energy information
  • Seeking opportunities to lead in data center efficiency
  • Making transportation safer, smarter, and cleaner
 
Government Performance
In government, broadband facilitates transparency, efficiency, and clarity. A connected government enables enhanced access to services and streamlines online interactions between the citizen and their government.
 
Team lead Eugene Huang has a number of anecdotes that he cites. “One example of how universal broadband can increase performance in the filing of taxes. Individual paper tax returns cost eight times more to process than electronic returns [$2.87 per paper return, $0.35 per electronic return], but nearly 43% of returns are still filed by paper. If all Americans processed their taxes online, the government would save over $300 million over five years.”
 
Government performance recommendation framework:
  • Transforming government service delivery (through cloud computing, competitions for ideas, and greater use of social media)
  • Increasing the quantity and quality of civic engagement
  • Using government assets to improve broadband deployment
 
Public Safety
A familiar face, Admiral Barnett, is back. Barnett assisted in the initial Haiti update and appears with Jennifer Manner to represent public safety. “I can explain what broadband can do for public safety very briefly,” he says. First, we must protect against cyber threats; second, we can improve the methods and effectiveness of alerting people to danger and provide information for their safety; third, we can improve the effectiveness of people who need to ask for help, by alerting public safety; lastly, broadband can help first responders exchange critical, information rich data through a nationwide, interoperable wireless network. “We get one at bat and one swing,” he cautions. We need to get this right.
 
The microphone is ceded to Jennifer Manner to present the more substantive public safety recommendations.
 
Public safety recommendation framework:
  • Creating a nationwide interoperable broadband wireless public safety network
  • Transitioning to a next-generation 9-1-1 system
  • Developing a comprehensive next-generation alerting system
  • Enhancing security measures to safeguard networks and core infrastructure
 
Economic Opportunity
Broadband plays a crucial and pressing role in increasing economic opportunity nationwide. On behalf of the team, Elana Berkowitz explains the compelling case. “Americans use broadband to support a universe of online job search, job applications, job training that can be used anywhere at any time with lower cost and with increased effectiveness. Entrepreneurs and small businesses can use online tools, reach new markets, develop new business models… Broadband can enable regional communities to compete globally or farm communities trying to compete nationwide.”
 
Economic opportunity recommendation framework
  • Creating a robust national employment assistance platform
  • Promoting telework through federal policy
  • Expanding efforts to trains and equip SMEs with broadband applications
  • Utilizing broadband to enhance economic development tools and planning

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Given the late afternoon start time the meeting has predictably run into the evening. Managing Director Erik Garr, wraps up expeditiously. “If we can do a lot of these things for the country it will make a material difference for how we find jobs, how we’re trained for jobs, how we’re educated, and how we care for each other when we’re sick,” he says. “This is important stuff. We look forward to taking this to final recommendations from working recommendations.”
 
Chairman Genachowski and the assembled commissioners agree that this was an “impressive and very important presentation.”
 
6:35pm EDT
After a brief presentation from Steve Waldman on Future of Media the Chairman adjourns the meeting. The Broadband Team retires to their secluded lair to continue writing. Interested onlookers, filled with national purpose, disperse into the night.

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