FCC Should Expect Broadband Plan Opposition, Official Says

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As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission begins to implement its first national broadband plan in the coming weeks, it should expect opposition from nearly everyone in the tech and telecom communities to some parts of the proposal, said the leader of the team that put it together.

When the FCC gets into the details of implementing the plan, there will be disagreements on how to move forward, said Blair Levin, who served as executive director of the FCC's Omnibus Broadband Initiative. But it will be important for the agency to move forward, he said.

"We really wanted the plan to be a call for action, and we think that's the kind of reaction that we're now getting," he said during a Brookings Institution forum on the broadband plan. "People are finally understanding the need for a plan and the need for action."

Some commentators have already suggested the 360-page plan, released Tuesday, is meaningless because everybody supports it, Levin said. But while many people in the tech and telecom communities have expressed general support for the plan, some have already found things to criticize.

"If you actually read the commentary, everybody supports large pieces of it," Levin said. "We were joking that our aspiration was for everyone in the [Internet] ecosystem to love 80 percent, marginalize 10 percent of it, and really hate 10 percent. That would be a good, balanced approach."

The FCC's broadband team wanted to create a comprehensive and balanced document, Levin said. The document needed to be data-driven and befitting an expert agency, he added. "We wanted it to be the kind of advice that companies would get if they had billions of dollars on the line," he said. "What we wanted to do is provide the data necessary to make intelligent value judgments."

Several pieces of the plan have received significant attention, including the goal to provide 100M bps (bits per second) service to 100 million U.S homes by 2020. The plan would pump US$15.5 billion into broadband deployment over the next decade by shifting the focus of a large part of the Universal Service Fund, which now largely subsidizes traditional telephone service.

The plan also sets the goal of freeing up 500MHz of wireless spectrum for broadband use in the next 10 years, with 120MHz coming out of existing television spectrum. It's obvious that the U.S. needs more spectrum available for mobile broadband, and the FCC so far has had an ad hoc policy toward spectrum allocation, Levin said.

"The fear of action in this regard has led to a lot of inaction," he said.

But Levin and Carlos Kirjner, senior adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, said that one of the most important pieces of the plan, over the long term, may be its national purposes section. That section, which takes up more than a third of the plan, focuses on ways that broadband can help transform other industries, including health care, education and energy.

The national purposes section hasn't generated a lot of headlines so far, but it may end up being the most "transformative" section of the plan, Levin said.

School teachers should be able to go online, find the best course materials available and customize them for each student, Kirjner said. The teacher should be able to distribute the lesson in "Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and English, and she can send an e-mail with a link to each student based on what's best for the student," he said.

Broadband can transform education and eliminate the need for students to haul 25-pound backpacks to and from school, he said.

Homeowners and other electricity customers should be able to get real-time information on their energy use through a broadband-enabled smart grid, he added. "There are so many positive implications," he said. "You will see the emergence of all kinds of services, where someone will pay you, for example, to connect your electric car to the grid at certain times."

Speaking at the event, Peter Stenberg, a rural economics researcher in the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, praised the broadband plan but said he would have liked to see more emphasis placed on how land-grant universities can help rural areas get broadband service.

And Karen Mossberger, a professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she hopes the FCC will focus significant attention to the parts of the plan that address the cost of broadband and digital literacy. A lot of attention in the plan seems to be on bringing broadband to new areas instead of finding ways to drive down cost, she said.

The broadband plan recognizes the need for affordable broadband in several ways, including a proposal to build a nationwide free or low-cost wireless broadband network, she said. The plan seems to lay most of the responsibility for affordability on the private broadband market, she said.

"More competition and innovation are sorely needed -- they should be encouraged," she said. "But I think that over-reliance on the market has left us with expensive broadband in comparison with other nations."

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