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Remarks of FCC Commissioner Susan Ness
Before the Bridge Builders' Conference.Over the Digital Divide
Wilmington, DE
February 17, 2000

(As prepared for delivery.)


Thank you for inviting me to be here today.

The digital divide has become the hot topic at conferences such as these. President Clinton has focused attention on making sure that the technological future is within reach of every American. Congress, the Department of Commerce and state and local governments have also launched important initiatives to bridge the digital divide.

What I like about this conference in particular, is that we are here -- not just to discuss the problems that a digital divide poses for this country – but to craft solutions. It was a great idea to invite all of the bridge builders to come together and share their tools.

Digital Tools

Indeed, the digital tools of this century have the power to unlock doors of opportunity for people everywhere. And government entities and community leaders have a vital role to play – they must make sure that those doors are open, not locked shut.

At the FCC, our role is slightly different than initiatives announced by other governmental entities. Because we oversee the telecommunications industry, we are focused on the evolution of the telecommunications infrastructure, rather than Internet training programs or rounding up donations of computers.

In fact, we at the FCC -- together with our state partners -- have a statutory obligation to ensure that the telecommunications infrastructure is sufficient to deliver all of the

wonderful applications that are being developed. As part of that obligation, these new applications must be equally available -- in our classrooms, inner-city neighborhoods, and across rural America.

An Economic Revolution

So, one might ask, why is it so important that this technology be widely available? And, why is there so much attention on this issue at this point in time?

The answer is clear: we are in the middle of an economic revolution.

Participating in the new economy depends on access to advanced technology. Broadband infrastructure – which delivers such services as high-speed Internet access and video conferencing – is becoming an essential component of economic prosperity.

Whole communities have been transformed into powerful economic engines because they have the infrastructure the high tech businesses need. I have watched in awe as scores of Internet start-ups and dot-coms have sprung into existence almost overnight. Young entrepreneurs are testing new ideas, awash with seed capital. Savvy business leaders are focused how to improve their services, and bring yet more innovations to the American consumer. And, we constantly read about the need for more housing and employees in the high-tech areas, and the money to be earned.

But, in addition to these new high-tech corridors, access to broadband infrastructure can also revitalize existing communities. The beauty of the Internet is that you can do business from virtually any location. Indian craftsmen, for example, can sell their goods through a website that is accessible to people around the world.

In fact, broadband may create possibilities for e-commerce as revolutionary as mail order catalogues were in the 19th century.

But the blossoming of new services depends in large measure on preparing the soil – installing the telecommunications infrastructure first.

The Importance of Uniform Access

Problems arise, however, when some geographic areas or demographic groups do not have access to high tech tools, and thus are left out of the communications revolution.

As e-commerce becomes more and more widespread, broadband services will become an essential component to operating a business. I can foresee a time when, for example, factories will need access to high-speed services in order to locate and place orders for additional supplies. Lack of access, therefore, could result in factory closures, which could have a devastating impact on jobs, population growth, and economic prosperity.

Lack of broadband access can also impact a community's education, health care, and recreational services. A child assigned to write a school report on Abe Lincoln can produce a very comprehensive product if she can pull up the contents of the Library of Congress at the click of a mouse. The edge that Internet-savvy kids have over kids who don’t have access to these services can have an enormous impact on future generations.

High-quality healthcare is also of critical importance to communities. Telemedicine facilitates exchange patient information from one site to another over electronic communications. Telemedicine can save lives in remote rural areas where a patient and the closest health care professional are miles apart.

For example, a specialist at a North Carolina University Hospital was able to diagnose a rural patient’s hairline spinal fracture at a distance, using telemedicine video imaging. The patient’s life was saved because treatment was done on-site without physically transporting the patient to the specialist who was located a great distance away.

The disabled community can also reap the benefits of broadband services. This morning at our FCC meeting, we saw a demonstration of video relay conferencing. It enabled those with hearing disabilities to carry on real time conversations with others using technologies that convert among voice, text, and sign language.

Even beyond education and healthcare, access to broadband services is changing the way that people live. My daughter attended a camp this summer which contemporaneously posted on its web site photos of the campers’ production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I liked it a lot. My son spends hours on-line with his classroom buddies, working on homework projects and playing games.

But without access to high-speed services, there is a real danger that communities might get left behind.

Identifying Barriers

Our biggest challenge as government officials and community leaders is to identify any barriers that might exist, and to eliminate them.

One way that communities, or portions of communities, can be left behind is lack of infrastructure into the home – also known as the broadband "last mile." A massive backbone infrastructure doesn’t help much if the wires into your house are of poor quality or low capacity, and the bitstream slows down to a trickle by the time the information enters your home computer.

I am delighted that companies in virtually all sectors of the communications industry are rushing to deploy broadband services. Some broadband access technologies work better than others, depending upon the location, the economics, and the use.

The role of government is not to pick winners and losers. Rather, our job is to eliminate barriers to competition so that companies have the incentive to invest and innovate. If we are successful, consumers will have the opportunity to choose the technology that best meets their needs.

Communities have also expressed frustration about lack of access to the high-speed backbone that crisscrosses our vast country. Just because a fiber-optic cable passes through a rural community, it doesn’t mean that the Internet traffic generated by citizens of that community can enter the backbone at that point.

This is the Internet equivalent of the impact that the first railroads had on industrial communities. That is, having train tracks nearby is only helpful if there is also a train depot.

For the Internet, there must be an onramp -- or "point-of-presence" -- to transfer traffic onto the Internet backbones that are so essential to connecting the World Wide Web.

What can be done?

The next question is: how can we all work together to make broadband deployment to all Americans a reality?

First, here is what we do not want to do. We must not stifle the growth of the Internet by imposing unnecessary regulation. The Internet has grown enormously in recent years with minimal government regulation, subject instead to the competitive marketplace principles of openness and connectivity. We must remember that regulation imposes costs. Often, the best action is to take no action.

But there are initiatives we should undertake to promote investment and help accelerate deployment of high-speed services.


One initiative is a program that Congress and the Clinton/Gore administration established in the 1996 Telecommunications Act to help link schools and libraries to the Internet. This program is called the e-rate.

In its first two funding years, the FCC’s e-rate program has committed more than $3.6 billion to provide schools and libraries across the country with discounts on telecommunications services and Internet connections to the classroom. Using these discounts, small town libraries can provide access to information previously available only in big cities, and schools can introduce an entire generation of students to the Internet. They can provide distance learning, enabling students to select from a wide range of advanced courses previously available only in the largest or wealthiest schools.

We give priority to the most economically disadvantaged schools and libraries. We also allow each institution to select the services it needs.

The e-rate program is a huge success. In two years, over one million classrooms were connected to the Net. A recent Department of Education report found that almost two-thirds of public school classrooms are now linked to the Internet. Moreover, classrooms are almost six times as likely to have high-speed connections to the Internet, rather than dial-up access.

Although the e-rate program is making a difference, there is still much more work to be done to bridge the Digital Divide. Sadly, as the Department of Education report found, 74% of classrooms in low-poverty areas, but only 39% in high-poverty areas, are connected to the Net. By targeting discounts to those most needy, we can give all Americans the skills and knowledge to thrive in the Information Age.

        Section 706 Reports

In addition to funding the E-rate program, the FCC – together with the states – has a statutory obligation under Section 706 of the 1996 Act to ensure that "advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion."

The first step is to gather information to determine how rapidly advanced services are being deployed and whether any segment of the population is being left out. We issued our first annual Section 706 Report on broadband deployment just over a year ago.

In that report, we concluded that deployment of advanced telecommunications generally appeared reasonable and timely, given its early stages. Our initial finding was based in part on the fact that use of broadband was equal to or surpassed the spread of other technologies, such as mobile service and television, at a similar point in their commercial life cycles.

Over the past year, broadband deployment has grown significantly. There are now more than a million residential subscribers. We are encouraged by the information we have received about the level of investment in broadband by a wide assortment of companies, large and small. This investment should lead to greater competition and more widespread deployment.

At the time we issued our first Report, however, broadband deployment was at such an early stage that we had only anecdotal evidence about whether broadband was reaching rural and inner-city users and persons with disabilities.

Just this morning we launched a Notice that will begin our second inquiry into the status of broadband deployment. In this Notice, we have posed specific questions to determine to what extent there is unequal growth in broadband access between certain demographic groups and regions of the United States.

If we determine that advanced telecommunications capability is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely manner, the statute directs us to take immediate action to accelerate deployment by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.

I encourage all of you to participate in this proceeding. It is an excellent vehicle to assess how we are doing and to determine whether barriers exist to more rapid deployment. You know firsthand the challenges that your communities face. Your experience can help us to reach our ultimate goal of enabling all Americans to have access to the tools necessary to prosper in the Information Age.

        Federal-State Joint Conference

We have also convened a Joint Conference with our colleagues on the state regulatory commissions to promote the widespread and rapid deployment of broadband services. We recently announced a schedule that includes six regional hearings throughout the United States during the next six months. Each hearing has a different focus. The themes range from public/private partnerships to a special focus on deployment to rural and urban multicultural communities.

As part of the Joint Conference, we will be publishing a Community Guide that will highlight successful projects around the country. We want to shine the spotlight on communities that have been able to accelerate the deployment of advanced services to their homes and businesses.

Based on information gathered through our Second Notice of Inquiry and the Joint Conference hearings, we will issue our Second Annual Report within the next six months. In our second Report, we should have a more accurate picture of the level of broadband deployment, and a better understanding of steps we can take to accelerate deployment to consumers in all regions of the country.

        Community Efforts

We are working very hard at the FCC to accelerate the deployment of advanced services to all Americans, but there is also a lot that can be done at the local level. Often, the best solutions are crafted by those of you who are closest to the consumer.

There is a small town in Oregon called La Grande with a population of 13,000 people. After losing an opportunity to bring a major software support company to town because of a lack of access to broadband telecommunications services, the City, the County and the local university came together to prevent future disappointments. They decided to publicize their need for high-speed telecommunications connections.

First they tried to use their permit authority to get a telecom company to provide access to its interstate cable by making access a condition of passing through the community. Although that effort fell through, they caught the attention of an entrepreneur who was enchanted by the community’s thirst for new technology. The entrepreneur created a new telecommunications company to do business in that locality.

Through a combination of persistence and willingness to spend local resources, a fiber optic point-of-presence was installed in La Grande in August, 1999. The investment in telecommunications infrastructure made it possible for an insurance claim processing center to relocate in the town, resulting in 50 new jobs immediately with the assurance of 50 more within two years.

This story illustrates for me the incredible power that local governments and community leaders have to build a bridge leading into their own communities.

Public entities like governments, schools, and hospitals are large consumers. Working together you can use your considerable buying power to attract new services and to put pressure on companies to upgrade facilities.

The amount of investment in telecommunications infrastructure is staggering. Don’t rely solely on companies that serve you today. Talk to new firms that see the market potential of smaller communities, and who might be willing to engage in public-private partnerships. Use the Internet to seek new suppliers.


This is truly an exciting time to be alive – not only in America, but around the world. A youngster in Boise, Idaho, communicates with a child living in a burned-out village in Kosova. Teenagers in Japan can now listen to the latest rock music coming out of Los Angeles.

Just this weekend, there was a front page article in the Washington Post about a woman from one of the poorest regions of China. This 25-year old former soldier and bar hostess, who never attended high school, posted her photo on a Chinese website. She is now working in Nanjing as a secretary.

The Internet is transforming lives across the country and around the world.

We are all here with a common purpose –to ensure that a bright technological future is available to every farmer, disabled veteran, and inner-city school child in America. I look forward to working with you to achieve that goal.

Thank you.