FCC Officially Releases National Broadband Plan

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission officially released the country's first national broadband plan Tuesday, and one of its major goals is to bring broadband service to all U.S. residents.

The FCC meeting Tuesday was a bit anticlimactic, because commission officials had conducted briefings on the major proposals in the 360-page plan in recent weeks. The FCC on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve a two-page joint statement on broadband, but did not vote on the broadband plan in its entirety.

The approximately 200 recommendations in the broadband plan will need to be approved separately, FCC officials said. The agency is planning a series of about 40 notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) in coming months, and some recommendations in the plan will need action from the U.S. Congress. The FCC also makes a series of recommendations to other U.S. government agencies.

"Every American should have a meaningful opportunity to benefit from the broadband communications era," the broadband statement approved Tuesday says. "Ubiquitous and affordable broadband can unlock vast new opportunities for Americans, in communities large and small, with respect to consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth, and other national purposes."

The broadband plan recognizes that private investment will largely drive broadband deployment in the U.S., but that government has a "crucial but restrained role to play," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Genachowski called the broadband plan one of the most important mandates that Congress has ever given to the FCC. Congress, in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in early 2009, required the FCC to create a national broadband plan. Several people in the tech community have long argued that the U.S. is falling behind other industrialized nations in broadband adoption, in part because the nation has no comprehensive broadband plan.

Broadband is essential for the U.S. to be globally competitive, he said. "This is the great infrastructure challenge of our generation," Genachowski said. "The U.S. is lagging globally. Millions and millions of Americans are being left behind; the status quo is not good enough for America."

Among the major proposals in the broadband plan:

-- Make broadband available to all U.S. residents. About 7 million U.S. households don't have access to broadband service today, according to FCC member Robert McDowell.

-- Connect 100 million U.S. households to "affordable" 100M bps (bits per second) broadband service by 2020. While there are no specific actions recommended in the plan to accomplish this, the whole plan focuses on that goal, Genachowski said.

-- Connect anchor institutions such as hospitals, schools and government buildings in every U.S. community to 1G bps broadband service in the next decade.

-- Identify and make available 500MHz of wireless spectrum that can be auctioned or shared and used for mobile broadband by 2020.

-- Increase U.S. adoption rates for broadband from about 65 percent to 90 percent.

-- Build a nationwide, interoperable mobile broadband network for public safety agencies such as police and fire departments. The cost would be $12 billion to $16 billion over the next 10 years, the FCC estimated.

-- Restructure the FCC's Universal Service Fund and redirect $15.5 billion from traditional telephone subsidies to broadband deployment over the next 10 years. The FCC will tell Congress that it could add $9 billion to make the broadband deployment happen faster and more smoothly, said Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC's Omnibus Broadband Initiative.

While there was widespread praise for the FCC's broadband plan Monday and Tuesday, there are likely to be several points of contention as the FCC moves forward. There's likely to be debate in Congress about the cost of the plan, including the cost of the public safety network.

There was some disagreement between Genachowski, a Democrat, and McDowell, one of two Republicans on the five-member commission, about the difficulty of providing 100M bps of service to 100 million homes. Cable broadband's DOCSIS 3 standard should allow speeds that high over the next 10 years, McDowell said.

"Merely by upgrading cable systems with the DOCSIS 3.0 system, which is expected to happen over the next few years anyway, over 104 million American homes will have access to speeds of up to 100 mbps," McDowell said. "In other words, unless the government provides disincentives to investment, the plan's goal of reaching 100 million households with 100M bps services should be attained well before 2020 if we allow current trends to continue in an unfettered manner."

Genachowski, however, said the 100M bps goal was attainable, but it would take hard work by both the private sector and the federal government.

McDowell also raised concerns that the plan "implies" that the FCC should require broadband providers to share fiber and other parts of their networks with competitors. Cbeyond, a broadband and VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) provider, recently petitioned the FCC to return to network-sharing rules that the agency did away with in 2005.

"As a result of that deregulation, fiber deployment has spiked in recent years," McDowell said. "Rather than reverse course, the commission should ensure that any future actions will not create regulatory uncertainty and litigation risk that could scare away capital investment."

But Levin and Sharon Gillett, chief of the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau, said the plan does not recommend new line-sharing regulations. The plan recognizes that the commission has an number of open proceedings related to wholesale telecom pricing, and "it should pay attention to those proceedings and act on them," Gillett said.

McDowell and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, also questioned the plan's proposal to take back 120MHz of wireless spectrum from U.S. television stations. The plan would ask TV stations to voluntarily give up unused spectrum in exchange for a portion of auction proceeds, but it also explores ways to require TV stations to give up the spectrum if enough stations don't volunteer.

Instead of "coercive" efforts to get broadcasters to give up spectrum, the FCC should look to encourage TV stations to lease their spectrum to broadband providers, McDowell said.

Clyburn also questioned whether efforts to get TV stations to sell off spectrum would result in fewer TV choices for consumers and fewer women- or minority-owned TV stations. The plan "does not contain a rigorous analysis" of the impact of the sale of broadcast spectrum on the public interest, she said.

"A plan that will further decimate the prospects for women and minority owners is untenable," Clyburn added.

Still, Clyburn said the broadband plan was an "impressive" step forward for the FCC. She urged the commission to focus on ways to drive up the adoption of broadband. "We can deploy broadband to every single corner of this country, but if we don't have near-universal adoption, that deployment will be in vain," she said.

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