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President Obama Focused On Broadband

By: John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

The president is talking about broadband and newspapers "all the time," says Obama administration member Susan Crawford. But the answers to how to boost both remains to be determined.

In a speech to a Free Press gathering in Washington Thursday, Crawford, a member of the President's National Economic Council, said the future of the two may go together. "We know news is essential, and we know it is moving online," she said.

Crawford did make it clear that the administraion feels universal acccess to broadband is critical to the nation's economic success, and could be crucial to the future of journalism.

"I can assure you that the administration at the highest levels really is interested in broadband and cares about the national broadband plan and wants to engage." She urged her audience to weigh in at the FCC by June 8, the comment date for the broadband rollout plan the FCC must come up with by next February per the president's economic stimulus package.

"Broadband is the new essential infrastructure," she told the crowd. "It is true that access to broadband does not guarantee economic success. But lack of access to broadband will guarantee economic stagnation and decline."

She said that how high-speed broadband is defined will depend on what application is being used, but said that for a clinic, for example, 100 mbps is necessary and 1 gig preferable, and that some businesses would need higher speeds than others.

Crawford also said that broadband speed and access would matter to the online journalism model that is emerging, and that currently there is a digital divide along a number of fissures including geography, income, and others.

She said that going forward, the common wisdom is that newspapers can be "wise curators," or radar screens, "understanding when a news story is actually becoming news, which is something an editor can do." She said it takes a lot of training. "It is very hard to synthesize a nose for news."

News organizations have strong brands that can be used as platforms, she said, or can collaborate on hyper-local reporting.

She said the government's role is making information easily linkable and findable, so everyone can write about it.

Crawford called it an extremely difficult time for journalists. While people are contemplating a set of steps to take to "make it possible for some form of journalism to survive," and determining what form government intervention might be taken as well as advising journalists to develop individual brands, "the poor reporters" are just trying to file their stories in the face of "many, many" layoffs, she said.

One possible bright spot for traditional media, she said, may come in the rise of new communication forms. She pointed to the explosive growth of Twitter, noting that Twitter users are two to three times more likely to surf online news sites than other surfers. "For example, let's say 17% of the total U.S. Internet audience visited in March, more than double that percentage of visitors did so." She also said all her friends are joining Facebook. Those people also more likely to go online news sites. She hopes that includes bloggers and nontraditional sites, but also said she felt a "lot of loyalty" to news organizations, and that she knew the president does too. She said she was a "cub lawyer" at the New York Times and would miss the way the newspaper hits the doorstep when, not if, that stops.

"So, I am hoping there will be small and large sources of news online," she said. "Perhaps we can draw from this that we are heading toward a bright, though unknown, future. The boundaries will be different." Crawford said she thought there would stlil be "tremendous consolidation" of the business--"and we should worry about that"--but that there would still be news, just in a different form. "Maybe aggregating, curation, and more people inolved."

Crawford said she was "delighted" that Acting Chairman Michael Copps had kicked off the "long awaited, long overdue" national broadband plan effort, saying that other countries are ahead of us, with speeds that are many multiples of ours and lower prices. "We have been thoroughly surpassed by our European and Asian counterparts," she said. "The average broadband offering in Japan is 10 times faster than the average service available in the U.S. and half the cost. Residents of Tokyo can purchase speeds that are 100 times greater downstream and a thousand times greater upstream than those in San Francisco for a lower price, and the list goes on and on."

Other countries have created policies for broadband, she said. "It's our term; it's our time."

Crawford was on the Obama transition team that vetted the FCC.


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