Will the National Broadband Plan Go the Way of Healthcare Reform?

We've seen the prescription for national health care reform shrivel from brain surgery to a bandage on the forehead. I fear that the FCC's National Broadband Plan could suffer the same fate. The lack of competition in broadband, both wired and wireless, is at the root of a myriad of evils, including poor service, overcharges, opaque billing, and a complete lack of service in parts of the country. But for all its good intentions, the plan postpones hard choices on how to fix a broken system, and this gives the carriers and others the opening they need to delay, dilute, and damage the plan's important goals.

"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," says Chris Riley, policy counsel for Free Press, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "We hope the plan will confront the competition problems directly and will include specific policies to put consumers first. Implementing the policies needed to bring every American affordable, robust broadband will require courageous leadership and a willingness to stand up to narrow corporate interests."

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What's more, the 376-page plan [PDF] makes no mention of Net neutrality. And yes, I realize that Net neutrality is being considered by the FCC on a separate track, but there is yet no discernable to enact reforms and I fear that the commission missed a major opportunity to bring that crucial issue to the forefront.

I had a long conversation with Riley and other consumer advocates this week, and I want to be clear that the National Broadband Plan released to Congress this week is a promising start, according to people of good will who have given the matter a great deal of thought.

But the broadband industry has a huge amount of clout, often realized through expensive lobbying efforts and lavish campaign donations. Turning good intentions into real reform will require a bare-knuckle fight, and I'm not sure that the FCC and the Obama administration are ready for it.

The roots of today's broadband mess
In early 2009, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a National Broadband Plan to ensure every American has "access to broadband capability."

The plan calls for "the fastest and most extensive wireless networks" of any nation by 2020. It also proposes to allot more wireless spectrum for mobile devices, redirect some subsidies toward broadband access, develop a nationwide network for emergency first responders, and create a "digital literacy corps" to train new users.

Understanding the mess in the broadband market requires remembering a bit of history. When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, the Internet barely existed. By the time George W. Bush left office 16 years later, the technology world had been completely transformed, and we can no longer imagine life without the Web and a myriad of devices to access it.

Despite all that -- not to mention the billions upon billions of dollars of economic activity tied to the Web -- the government is, in many respects, clueless about how it works. And the report shows that.

It calls for the collection of data about market prices and performances. The FCC is already collecting data on connection speeds across the country via a test posted on its Website. Sure, that's a good idea, but hello, this is 2010. Why don't we know this already? Why, as Eric London of the Open Internet Coalition points out, are ISPs allowed to claim that 90Kbps service is broadband?

It could take years to collect that data. I'm aware, of course, that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski is not to blame for the astonishing paucity of data -- he's had the job for less than a year. But he's the guy in charge, and he needs to be sure the data is collected as soon as possible. Indeed, it would have been preferable to at least begin the collection process months ago.

Will you lose your TV signal?
The lobbying and PR blitz by special interests has already started. Let me quote from a story that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday: "The agency's proposal may force TV stations 'to change channels and reduce service areas, perhaps standing millions of viewers,' David Donovan, president of the broadcasters Asociation for Maximum Service Television, said Monday."

Yikes! Pretty scary -- or is it? In fact, because the plan lacks specifics, there is no way to judge if reallocation of some spectrum would squeeze out broadcast TV, says Michael Voellinger, executive president of Telwares, an IT and telecom consultancy that has looked hard at spectrum issues. "Anyone faced with a potential loss of spectrum is going to defend that turf," he says. But on the surface at least, that scary outcome doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, Voellinger says.

Even so, there is no doubt that wireless service is being crowded by a lack of spectrum, a shortage that will only get worse as wireless demand continues to grow.

David Coursey, my colleague over at PC World, said it very well: "It will be up to us -- the tech-savvy -- to push this plan through. Without our voices, it won't happen. It's just that simple -- and what does happen will be pro-business and likely anticonsumer. I'd say 'just watch' but it's a fate we really must avoid."

Exactly right -- read about the plan, tell your friends. Take the speed test. Lobby like crazy. If I've learned anything from the health care debacle, it's this: If we don't push hard, the special interests will win. Don't let that happen to the Web.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

This article, "The National Broadband Plan needs to be fixed -- already," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest developments on Net neutrality at InfoWorld.com.

This story, "Will the National Broadband Plan Go the Way of Healthcare Reform?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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