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

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission officially released the nation's first national broadband plan Tuesday, but 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.

The FCC plans about 40 proceedings in the coming months, Pheobe Yang, general counsel of the FCC's Omnibus Broadband Initiative, said Tuesday. The agency will release an action plan in coming weeks, she said.

About half of about 200 recommendations in the plan can be accomplished through FCC action, Yang said.

The FCC should engage in a healthy debate about items in the plan, but it needs to take action, added Blair Levin, executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative. "Analysis is not an excuse for paralysis," he said during Tuesday's FCC meeting.

The plan and the commission will need to be flexible, Levin added. "The plan is in beta and always will be," he said. "Like the Internet itself, the plan should change in light of new developments."

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.

Building Out Broadband

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.

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