FCC Unveils Ambitious Broadband Plan


The Federal Communications Commission unveiled its long-anticipated national broadband plan on Monday. The 360-page document, which details plans for everything from free broadband service to improved online health care, has been in the works for roughly a year.

The plan appears to be quite ambitious, so much so that the FCC's goals may be extremely difficult to achieve. As a couple of FCC execs noted in a press briefing on Monday, the agency's ability to succeed relies on many factors outside the government's control.

Under the plan, which will be formally announced on Tuesday, the FCC outlines its mission to deliver high-speed broadband service of up to 100 megabits per second to 100 million American households by the year 2020.

The FCC says it would also like to roll out a free broadband service subsidized by local ads. It's a promising idea, but one that's been bandied about for quite awhile and nothing has come of it. M2Z Networks, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based startup that aims to offer a free ad-based broadband service, has been lobbying to free up some spectrum for a national ad-subsidized service for a few years now.

"The real underlying question here is how many of [the FCC's ideas] will be followed through and implemented," says John Muleta, co-founder of M2Z.

Private Providers Look On

Conventional wisdom is that if a free service ever does get off the ground, it's bound to cannibalize the business of dominant broadband providers such as Comcast (CMCSA). If an affordable (or free) government-subsidized broadband service is available, who would pay $40 to $60 per month for high-speed Internet service? Despite appearances, Comcast insists that its goals are in line with the FCC plan -- and the cable giant's conciliatory tone is no surprise given its pending mega-merger with NBC Universal, which is currently under FCC review.

"We commend the FCC for the immense effort involved in researching and writing the National Broadband Plan," Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts said in a statement. "With the demand for bandwidth doubling every two years, most recognize the critical need for continued private investment in faster competitive broadband networks, and the importance of maintaining a regulatory environment to promote that investment."

Another special interest group whose feathers are ruffled is the National Association of Broadcasters. The FCC is counting on television broadcasters to voluntarily give up licenses on a significant chunk of spectrum, which will be used to deliver a beefed up broadband service. The FCC says it would roll out financial incentives to entice broadcasters to give back the spectrum, but the National Association of Broadcasters is already resistant to the proposal.

"[W]e are concerned by reports today that suggest many aspects of the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised. Moreover, as the nation's only communications service that is free, local and ubiquitous, we would oppose any attempt to impose onerous new spectrum fees on broadcasters," says NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton in a prepared statement.

And while many of the FCC's ideas were expected, some seemed like left-field pipe dreams. The FCC suggests, for example, that because of the collapse in the news business, Congress should consider increasing funding to public media to cover the costs of distributing content. The FCC also recommends that Congress amend the Copyright Act so that it would be easier for broadcasters to contribute to a national digital archive.

Public Interest Groups Praise

As the FCC's plan began to circulate Monday, consumer rights groups reacted with initial optimism.

"We see today's National Broadband Plan report to Congress as a significant first step in the right direction," Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America said in a statement. "Given the complete absence of policies to address the digital divide and promote competition in broadband in the past decade, this is an ambitious agenda and a good starting point for responding to the challenge confronting the U.S. communications network."

Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, also praised the plan. "The U.S. has long needed such a plan to keep pace other countries, and this plan, if implemented, will accomplish that objective," Sohn said in a statement. "We are particularly encouraged to see so much attention devoted to competition policies, which we believe will help to create new opportunities for innovators and new choices for consumers in what is now a tightly held duopoly."