Hard as it might seem to believe, the Federal Communications Commission finally got around to deciding it needed a plan to get broadband to more Americans after a decade of falling behind other nations when it comes to penetration and speeds of high-speed Internet. At the FCC’s monthly open meeting April 8, the agency voted to create a national broadband plan.
The creation of a broadband plan comes only after Congress ordered the FCC to do it as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a fact noted by acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps, who is holding down the fort while President Obama’s choice to run the agency-Julius Genachowski-awaits confirmation hearings.
“When I arrived here in 2001 and called for the Commission to engage in a serious dialogue about the future of broadband, it was unclear whether such a dialogue would occur,” Copps said. “On many occasions over the intervening years, I talked about how the country lacked a national strategy; how we lacked even the essential data on which to build a viable strategy; and how we were paying way too high a price because of a cavalier approach to an urgent national problem.”
That bit of politics aimed at the Bush administration’s failed free market plan to bring affordable broadband to all Americans by 2007 aside, Copps got down to laying out the challenge of making up lost ground.
“This Commission has never, I believe, received a more serious charge than the one to spearhead development of a national broadband plan,” he said. “Congress has made it crystal clear that it expects the best thinking and recommendations we can put together by next February. If we do our job well, this will be the most formative-indeed transformative-proceeding ever in the Commission’s history.”
As with all FCC inquires, the agency is first seeking public input on a wide range of questions about what a national broadband plan might actually be, including “strategies for achieving affordability and maximum utilization of broadband infrastructure and services.” The FCC is also charged with evaluating the current status of U.S. broadband deployment along with the progress of related grant programs.
When Congress mandated that the FCC develop a broadband plan, it also dropped $7.2 billion in stimulus funds for the building of broadband networks to unserved and underserved parts of the United States. The stimulus plan allocates $4.7 billion of the funding to the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) and the remaining $2.5 billion to the Department of Agriculture with the FCC in a consulting role.
“Our Notice of Inquiry seeks to be open, inclusive, outreaching and data-hungry,” Copps said. “It seeks input from stakeholders both traditional and nontraditional: those who daily ply the halls of our hallowed portals, those that would like to have more input here if we really enable them to have it and those who may never have heard of the Federal Communications Commission.”
Tackling Big Issues
Copps, who has been a strong supporter of network neutrality, also said he was not reluctant to deal with broadband issues that went beyond when, where and how high-speed networks are built.
“Ensuring broadband openness, avoiding invasions of people’s privacy, and ensuring cyber-security are three such challenges that come immediately to mind,” he said. “We have never in history seen so dynamic and potentially liberating a technology as this, but history tells us that no major [technological] transformation is ever a total, unmixed, [problem-free] blessing.”
S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, also urged the agency to step up and deal with the difficult conflicts that exist between telecommunications carriers and Internet content and service providers. In a statement, Turner said in order for the United States to have wide availability of broadband, a strong government watchdog will be necessary.
Free Press, along with fellow Internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, has emerged as a major voice for consumers after successfully pursuing a network neutrality complaint against cable broadband provider Comcast. The agency found Comcast guilty Aug. 1 of secretly degrading network traffic and ordered Comcast to stop blocking traffic, disclose to the FCC the full extent of its traffic practices and keep the public informed of its future network management plans.
“Any new strategy must take into account how past policies failed to deliver the open, competitive broadband marketplace Congress intended,” Turner said. “The blind deregulatory regime that we have today is a blueprint for what to avoid in the future. Under the last administration’s wait-and-see approach, competition disappeared, speeds stagnated, prices went through the roof and the open Internet was placed in jeopardy.”