FCC Unveils First Draft of Broadband Policy Plan

A government task force charged with developing a comprehensive national strategy for broadband deployment and adoption today issued its first set of policy recommendations, calling for an overhaul of a federal telephone subsidy program and a revision of the current system of allocating wireless spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission heard from leaders of the team developing the national broadband plan at its monthly meeting this morning, two months ahead of the deadline Congress set to deliver the final version.

But they spoke of the plan as only a modest first step, a down payment on forward-looking broadband policies that would certainly change and evolve over time.

“All the countries that have successfully implemented a plan have looked at this not as a single event but as an ongoing process,” said Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative.

The mandate for the broadband plan, due Feb. 17, came in the February economic stimulus bill that allocated more than $7 billion to fund broadband deployment and adoption programs.

In their recommendations today, members of the broadband task force stressed the importance of effective government partnerships with the private sector, noting that “the limited government funding that is available for broadband would be best used when leveraged with private sector investment.”

The task force declared that competition would be the “guiding principle” of the policy framework, hinting at rule changes that would open access to providers’ infrastructure to local and regional competitors.

Chief among the recommendations was a reform to the Universal Service Fund (USF) subsidy program. The task force recommended a long-term overhaul of the program that would shift funding currently used for telephone service to broadband, allowing low-income households obtain high-speed Internet service through the Lifeline program.

The task force recommended that the commission undertake USF reform in conjunction with a review of long-simmering shard-infrastructure issues, such as intercarrier compensation and special access.

Of course, like most of the proposals heard today, USF reform isn’t a quick fix.

“We’ll have to begin the process of redirecting USF over time to support broadband service everywhere,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the close of today’s meeting. “Fully achieving a transformation of USF will take some time.”

Wireless spectrum reform ahead?

The task force also recommended a review of the FCC’s spectrum policy, another complex area that’s been on the commission’s back burner for years.

Spectrum reform, perhaps the most pressing item on the policy agenda of the wireless industry, is seen as key to ensuring that providers have enough bandwidth to support the explosive growth in mobile computing. The task force recommended that the commission resolve the open spectrum proceedings such as AWS-3, and also set aside portions of the airwaves for unlicensed devices.

But the most challenging part of the process would likely come with any effort to reclaim any spectrum licenses currently held by broadcasters to reallocate to wireless data services. The industry lobbied heavily against the commission’s move to open the “white spaces” spectrum, or the bands that sit in between TV channels, to unlicensed devices last year, and has already begun to argue against efforts to reallocate new portions of spectrum from TV broadcasters.

Genachowski acknowledged the friction this morning.

“It’s of course our obligation at the FCC to ensure that spectrum is used to serve the whole range of public needs,” he said.

Among the other recommendations of the task force was the creation of a nonprofit entity to support digital literacy and other broadband adoption efforts, particularly among segments of the population that lag behind the national average, such as low-income households and minorities.

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