Debate Rages on for FCC National Broadband Plan

After months of anticipation, the FCC finally presented Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan to Congress and the general public a few weeks ago. As I stated at the time, the intense debate leading up to the official unveiling of the plan gave the perception of an end-result, but the FCC's plan is merely a set of proposals and guidelines that basically frame the real debate--which is just beginning.

The FCC is faced with strong pressure from all sides as it fights to expand and improve broadband Internet access in America.
The FCC still has to sell the National Broadband Plan to Congress, and it plans to have an ongoing series of meetings over the next few months regarding the details behind the plan, and discussions about how to get from proposal to implementation. Posturing from both sides of the debate rages on.

The FCC Has Gone Too Far

On one side of the debate are those who think the FCC is overstepping its authority, or that the National Broadband Plan is equivalent to some sort of socialist government takeover of the Internet and broadband communications industries. This group is comprised of the major Internet and broadband providers--AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, etc.--and the proxy groups that represent them.

An editorial this past weekend in the Washington Post seems to side with these entities, noting that the FCC itself has admitted that broadband use has exploded, stating "Fueled primarily by private sector investment and innovation, the American broadband ecosystem has evolved rapidly. The number of Americans who have broadband at home has grown from eight million in 2000 to nearly 200 million last year."

The editorial goes on to point out that many have come to view broadband Internet access a necessity--on par with basic telephone service. However, basic telephone service is required for urgent access to emergency services like police and fire.

It sums up by explaining that "broadband networks have been built with billions of dollars from companies in the private sector with a legitimate right to extract profit from well-placed investments. These initiatives--and yes, the profit motive--have resulted in remarkable leaps in a few short years."

Intentions are Good, But Direction is Wrong

Then, there are those who agree in principle that the Internet and broadband access are a necessity, and that the government and private sector interests should cooperate to ensure adequate access at affordable rates for everyone in America. They're just not sure the FCC has the right goals in mind to accomplish it.

Steve Woo, compliance office for HCI, Inc., emailed me and questioned the emphasis on wireless broadband. "Although wireless has its application for mobile services the physics of wireless communications and the limits of available bandwidth will always limit the amount of bandwidth available to the consumer. The wireless industry also relies upon copper and fiber-based technologies to communicate back to their servers."

Woo added "Also any technology based upon copper technology--be it twisted pair, power lines or coax--also has limitations to the amount of bandwidth and the distance that can be served. The only known technology available today that is not bandwidth-limited is fiber optic. And in that reality lays the problem. Fiber is not everywhere like copper. The fiber network to support the future bandwidth demands of the consumer is not available yet."

Margo Westfall, director of marketing communications for Ikanos Communications, also emailed with similar concerns. "The plan puts a significant emphasis on using wireless networking, yet wireless cannot deliver the next-generation of performance required by the United States to remain competitive in the global economy. Wireless speed are typically in the 3-12 Mbps range compared to the 100 Mbps targeted in the plan. And these rates could reduce as high bandwidth services increase since bandwidth is shared."

Leveling the Playing Field

Westfall also has concerns about whether or not the FCC National Broadband Plan fosters competition or simply bolsters the existing major players. "The plans seems to place substantial emphasis on the set top box as the primary device and focal point of the next generation US network. This strengthens the position of firmly-entrenched US companies rather than opening up a market."

Another concern is that the plan does not provide any caps or controls on the cost of broadband access. Westfall stresses "For the FCC plan to be effective, broadband access costs must be attainable to the majority."

There are good points from all sides. That is part of what makes the process so important. Contrary to the general perception and backlash, the FCC National Broadband Plan is not a mandate. The FCC will continue to work with Internet and broadband providers, consumer advocacy groups, and others to hammer out the details and determine the best course of action for the future of broadband in America.

Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies . He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW . You can follow him on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com .

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