FCC's National Broadband Plan: What's Next?

When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission officially releases the nation's first national broadband plan Tuesday, the document will be just the start of a long process to extend broadband service to millions of U.S. residents.

The broadband plan, about 360 pages long, includes six long-term policy goals and dozens of specific recommendations for the agency, for President Barack Obama's administration and for the U.S. Congress. The FCC also views the plan as a living document, one that will change over time, FCC officials said Monday.

Much of the plan can be accomplished through the FCC's rulemaking process, but the agency will issue dozens of notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) in coming months, FCC officials said Monday during a background briefing with the media.

Among the long-term goals: affordable 100M bps (bits per second) service to 100 million U.S. homes by 2020, and 1G bps service to anchor institutions such as hospitals and schools in every U.S. community in the same timeframe.

Even for fairly noncontroversial proposals, FCC rulemaking procedures can take several months. Some rulemaking efforts can take years -- the agency has had an open NPRM on telecom access fees since October 2007.

Asked what issues the FCC's first NPRMs will address, an agency spokeswoman said Monday that officials there aren't commenting on that yet.

One of the major proposals in the plan is to revamp the high-cost program in the FCC's Universal Service Fund, which now largely subsidizes traditional telephone service in rural areas. The national broadband plan would phase out the telephone subsidies in the US$4.6 billion-a-year program over 10 years and put the money into a new broadband deployment program. The FCC's plan would take $15.5 billion from the USF high-cost program and put it into broadband deployment over the next decade, and FCC officials said Monday they believe they can revamp USF without approval from Congress.

That doesn't mean USF reform will be smooth sailing. Some rural lawmakers and rural carriers may balk at the switch, and many people in the telecom industry have been calling on the FCC to reform USF for years without much action.

AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson called USF reform an important part of the national broadband plan. "Reforming universal service and ensuring affordable broadband for all Americans are the two most critical components of achieving universal broadband," he said in a blog post. "At the same time, they are also the most difficult and perplexing issues the FCC has struggled with over the last 15 years. But we cannot shy away from addressing the hard issues if we are serious about achieving universal broadband deployment and adoption, and we commend the FCC Broadband Team for taking the first steps in this long but crucial journey."

The FCC also makes a series of recommendations to the executive branch and to U.S. government agencies. The proposals to the Obama administration largely focus on the "national purposes" section of the broadband plan, which talks about how broadband can help improve the U.S. education, health-care, and energy industries.

For example, the broadband plan recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identify broadband applications that could immediately be driven forward with incentive-based reimbursements. The U.S. Department of Education, with help from other agencies, should establish federal standards for the sharing and licensing of digital learning content, the FCC plan recommends.

There are dozens of other recommendations for other agencies in the plan, which the agency gave to reporters on Monday.

Finally, some of the broadband plan will take congressional action, FCC officials said. Some of the most controversial proposals in the plan would likely need approval from Congress.

The FCC has proposed that Congress pay to build a nationwide, interoperable wireless broadband network for public safety agencies such as police and fire departments. The cost, the FCC has estimated, would be $12 billion to $16 billion over 10 years, although some critics say those numbers are too low.

The FCC, in the 700MHz auctions that ended in early 2008, had hoped that a bidder would buy the 10MHz D block in the auction and build a network to be shared by commercial users and public safety agencies. But the D block failed to attract the minimum bid set by the agency.

The national broadband plan would auction the D block to commercial providers, and ask for money to build the public safety network. Under the FCC's plan, the agency would identify 500MHz of wireless spectrum over the next 10 years that could be shared with wireless broadband services or sold at auction, and the auctions should more than pay for the public safety network, FCC officials said Monday.

Public safety officials and U.S. lawmakers have been calling for a nationwide mobile broadband network since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., during which the multiple public safety agencies responding to the attacks couldn't communicate each other.

But $16 billion is a lot of money in an era of huge U.S. government budget deficits, and there's likely to be debate in Congress about whether to spend the money or do something new with the D block. Several public safety groups have called on the FCC to turn over the D block to them so that they could move ahead with a nationwide broadband network.

The FCC's plan also tells Congress it could spend another $9 billion to help deploy broadband in areas of the U.S. that don't have it, in addition to the $15.5 billion from USF reform. And the FCC will ask Congress for some money to fund digital literacy programs.

But Congress already allocated $7.2 billion for broadband deployment in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in early 2009. With many congressional Republicans questioning the effects of the huge economic stimulus package, it may be hard to get Congress to approve new money for broadband.

The FCC will also ask Congress to give it new authority to sell spectrum now controlled by incumbents including U.S. television stations. The FCC, in its effort to identify 500MHz of spectrum for wireless spectrum over the next 10 years, wants to ask TV stations to voluntarily give up unused spectrum in exchange for part or all of the auction revenues.

This is likely to be controversial, and the FCC plan suggests that it should have the power to force TV stations off unused spectrum if enough stations don't volunteer. The FCC would need approval to share auction revenues with broadcasters, and a handful of lawmakers have already questioned whether TV stations should give up more spectrum after turning over 108MHz of spectrum for the 700MHz auctions.

Although some pieces of the plan are likely to be controversial, broadband providers and consumer groups, often at odds over telecom policy, largely praised the plan Monday after the FCC released the executive summary.

"Now comes the hard part: achieving the vision articulated in this plan," Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs and policy, said in a statement. "Verizon will ... continue to work closely and cooperatively with the FCC and Congress to help meet the nation's broadband policy goals. It is clear that virtually all of these important goals will be achieved through private investment."

Free Press, a media reform group often critical of the large telecom carries, also praised the broadband plan. The plan makes it clear that broadband is a "must have" public service like water and electricity, said Josh Silver, Free Press' executive director.

Free Press supports efforts to increase broadband speeds and help consumers afford broadband, but the hard part of the plan is ahead, Silver added.

"There are no easy paths to reach these goals," he said in a statement. "To put the market to work for American consumers, the FCC will need to foster competition to drive down prices and drive up speeds. This will require confronting the market power of the cable and telephone giants that control the broadband market.The problems caused by the lack of competition are what led the Congress to order up a National Broadband Plan. While the FCC does take some important steps toward a new framework for competition policy, many of the critical questions are deferred for further review."

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