FCC Broadband Plan Stresses Competition, Spectrum

Advance copy of broadband plan reveals focus on making Internet service market more competitive, while FCC sets ambitious agenda to boost wireless data networks.

By Kenneth Corbin | Posted Mar 15, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- The national broadband plan that the Federal Communications Commission has spent more than a year developing will urge policymakers to take a series of steps to improve the competitive state of the Internet service sector, and set in motion the process of revising spectrum allocations to drive wireless broadband.

The FCC is due to formally deliver the plan to Congress on Tuesday, the same day that it will be presented at the commission's monthly meeting, but an FCC source told InternetNews.com that key committee leaders on the Hill have already received the plan, and staffers have held a series of meetings with FCC officials to discuss its recommendations.

In a meeting with reporters Monday morning, senior FCC officials described the broadband plan as a call to action, admitting that even at 359 pages, the plan is a working document that will need to be revisited as the broadband market evolves.

And though the plan brims with specific recommendations, metrics and timetables, it also leaves many proposals left as broad goals, calling, for instance, for "a comprehensive review of wholesale competition rules to help ensure competition in fixed and mobile broadband services," revisiting the controversial provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that required incumbent providers to share access to their network infrastructure.

As details of the plan have begun to trickle out, advocacy groups from the left and the right have voiced preliminary reactions, in turns praising and criticizing the increased government oversight over various aspects of the broadband market the plan recommends.

In addition to shared access rules, the FCC is also calling for a review of the special access market to ensure that the "terms, conditions and rates" large incumbents impose on smaller providers for access to high-speed broadband lines that make up the so-called middle mile of service connections are "just and reasonable."

That will come as welcome news to a coalition of small and midsize providers, advocacy groups and others formed last year to press the FCC to regulate the fees incumbents like AT&T, Verizon and Qwest charge for use of special access lines.

Aim to broaden expand Internet access, mobile broadband

FCC officials stressed this morning that the plan is not aiming for a grand rewrite of telecom legislation, but rather contains a series of targeted recommendations that will set in motion dozens of proposed rulemaking proceedings at the commission over the next several months.

The recommendations for Congress are generally modest, calling for appropriations for a nationwide public safety network, some small-scale adoption programs and suggesting that Congress, at its discretion, consider allocating funds to targeted deployment projects, as it did with the economic stimulus package that directed the commission to draft the broadband plan.

It also advocates certain cost-neutral legislative proposals, such as a so-called "dig-once" bill, which would require the installation of broadband lines when roads are dug up in federal highway projects. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced dig-once legislation last January.

The plan includes a section concerning national purposes, which contains a series of recommendations for executive agencies to harness broadband to tackle looming policy priorities like clean energy and health care.

But many of the recommendations in the plan are proposals for policies that the FCC feels it is empowered to enact on its own, such as a sweeping reform of the federal subsidy currently used to deliver telephone service to low-income Americans.

The plan proposes shifting up to $15.5 billion in the Universal Service Fund (USF) over the next 10 years to a Connect America Fund that would fund broadband service. Commission officials spoke of USF reform as the cornerstone of the goal of achieving universal access and adoption of broadband service.

The plan notes that nearly 100 million Americans currently do not have broadband today, and 14 million live in areas where service isn't available.

In the plan, the FCC has set the ambitious goal of delivering access to Internet service with a download speed of 100 Mbps and an upload speed of 50 Mbps to 100 million homes by 2020.

The plan also outlines a number of proposals to spur the development of mobile broadband, which it describes as "the next great challenge and opportunity for the United States."

Spectrum wrangling ahead

Chief among the recommendations for mobile is the reallocation or repurposing of spectrum to serve wireless broadband networks.

"Spectrum policy is the most important lever government has to help ensure wireless and mobile broadband thrive," the plan's authors wrote.

The FCC is aiming to free up 300 MHz of spectrum for wireless networks by 2015, and 500 MHz by 2020. To meet the near-term benchmark of 300 MHz, the FCC is proposing to reclaim 120 MHz of spectrum from TV broadcasters to sell at auction for wireless data networks, with a portion of the proceeds being returned to the groups that voluntarily gave up their licenses.

The FCC is also appealing to Congress to enact legislation that would expand the commission's authority to conduct these "incentive auctions" to reclaim and reallocate spectrum, a process which invites a protracted political fight from incumbents looking to hold onto their licenses.

Commission officials expressed optimism this morning that broadcasters would be willing to cooperate with the reallocation process if the incentives were structured properly.

The FCC is also asking Congress to give it the authority to levy fees on certain license holders in an effort to encourage them to use their spectrum for the most efficient, economical purposes, aiming to create a financial incentive to discourage groups from sitting on underused spectrum.

The FCC is planning to develop an online spectrum dashboard that would provide public access to the allocations of the airwaves, with the commission to publish a report every three years detailing how each party is using its spectrum.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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