FCC Releases National Broadband Plan

March 15, 2010. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a document [376 pages in PDF] titled "A National Broadband Plan for Our Future". The FCC also released a summary [6 pages in PDF] and a release [2 pages in PDF].

The FCC is scheduled hold to an event at 10:30 AM on March 16 titled "open meeting". The sole item on the agenda [PDF] is a "presentation" of a "National Broadband Plan", and adoption of a "Broadband Mission Statement". The Commissioners are not scheduled to vote on the plan. This is GN Docket No. 09-51.

The document states that "the author of this plan is America itself".

It states that "the plan seeks to ensure that the entire broadband ecosystem -- networks, devices, content and applications -- is healthy. It makes recommendations to the FCC, the Executive Branch, Congress and state and local governments."

While the document contains numerous proposals for FCC rules changes, Congressional legislation, and actions by other government entities, the report, said Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), "is not self-executing".

Although, the FCC has a history of relying upon mere statements as the basis for enforcement actions.

The report asserts that "It does not reach conclusions about or explore in detail the many legal issues that will be relevant to the FCC’s implementation of the plan. These will be addressed through notice-and-comment rulemakings the FCC will conduct following the plan."

The plan also discusses, but makes no recommendations regarding, the legal framework for such implementation. That is, the FCC could treat broadband as a Title II communications service, as an information service subject to the theory of "ancillary jurisdiction", or as specified by Congress in yet to be enacted legislation. The document merely states that "The FCC will consider these and related questions as it moves forward to implement the plan."

The document contains many proposals regarding spectrum. It states that the FCC should "Free up and allocate additional spectrum for unlicensed use", "Make 500 megahertz of spectrum newly available for broadband within 10 years, of which 300 megahertz should be made available for mobile use within five years", and "Expand opportunities for innovative spectrum access models by creating new avenues for opportunistic and unlicensed use of spectrum".

More specifically, the document states that "The FCC should make up to 60 megahertz available by auctioning Advanced Wireless Services (AWS ) bands, including, if possible, 20 megahertz from federal allocations.

The document also states that in 2011 "The FCC should auction the 10 megahertz Upper 700 MHz D Block for commercial use that is technically compatible with public safety broadband services". Also, "The FCC should initiate a rule making proceeding to reallocate 120 megahertz from the broadcast television (TV) bands."

It also states that the FCC should "Consider licensing a block of spectrum with a condition to offer free or low-cost service that would create affordable alternatives for consumers".

It contains proposals for changing and expanding the FCC universal service tax and subsidy programs. It recommends that the FCC "Create the Connect America Fund (CAF) to support the provision of affordable broadband and voice with at least 4 Mbps actual download speeds and shift up to $15.5 billion over the next decade from the existing Universal Service Fund (USF) program to support broadband." It adds that "If Congress wishes to accelerate the deployment of broadband to unserved areas and otherwise smooth the transition of the Fund, it could make available public funds of a few billion dollars per year over two to three years."

It further proposes that the government "Create a Mobility Fund to provide targeted funding to ensure no states are lagging significantly behind the national average for 3G wireless coverage", "transition" the high cost component "over the next 10 years and shift all resources to the new funds", "Reform intercarrier compensation", and expand the range of entities and customers subject to universal service taxation.

It also proposes that the government expand the FCC's "Lifeline and Link-Up programs by allowing subsidies provided to low-income Americans to be used for broadband".

Reaction on Capitol Hill. Democrats on Capitol Hill praised the document.

This report is mandated by HR 1, the huge spending bill enacted in February of 2009. HR 1 passed the House and Senate on nearly straight party line votes.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), Chairman of the House Commerce Committee's (HCC) Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet (SCTI), stated in a release that the FCC "has done a superb job" and "I look forward to working with FCC Chairman Genachowski to enact legislation which will carry forward the Commission’s plan".

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Chairman of the HCC, stated in a release that "I look forward to exploring the recommendations in more detail and in the bipartisan manner we have traditionally addressed communications and technology issues." He added that "Chairman Boucher's Subcommittee ... will hold its first hearing on the National Broadband Plan on Thursday, March 25, 2010."

Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV), Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee (SCC), stated in a release that "I welcome the FCC's National Broadband Plan. I look forward to reading and reviewing its recommendations. But above all, I look forward to the FCC moving ahead to make broadband a reality for everyone in this country".

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) stated in a release that "This is a roadmap to an America with the most robust, accessible broadband infrastructure in the world and the jobs that come with it, and we should settle for nothing less". He added that this plan "is not self-executing. It will require bipartisan support and long term commitment to implement."

Few Republicans issued prompt statements on the document. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the HCC's SCTI, stated in a release that "I am concerned, however, that the plan may contain stalking horses for investment-killing ideas, such as so-called net neutrality mandates or a return to out-dated, monopoly-era regulation."

Rep. Stearns also stated that "The FCC's plan confirms that 95 percent of households have access to broadband and two-thirds of those households are subscribers. That's confirmation that our existing free market, pro-investment policies are working. The FCC must remain focused on the five percent of households that otherwise may be uneconomic for the private sector to serve."

More Reaction. Barbara Esbin of the Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF) commented on the procedure to be employed by the FCC at the March 16 meeting. She wrote in a statement that there is "a Plan developed and written by a team chosen by the FCC's Chairman that will not be adopted by vote of the full Commission. The five Commissioners will vote instead on a 'Broadband Mission Statement' that contains 'goals for U.S. broadband policy.' In other words, the full FCC will adopt only a statement of broadband policy goals on March 16th."

Esbin added that "There is a danger that this procedural choice could impede (perhaps greatly) the ultimate effect of the Plan, which is to promote jobs, growth, and economic recovery." For example, "Will the other governmental entities whose actions are required to implement the recommendations feel as compelled to follow the recommendations of the Plan when it does not even bear the imprimatur of an affirmative vote of a majority of the sitting Commissioners?"

Ed Black, head of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), focused on competition in a statement. He wrote "The FCC Plan recognizes that while the biggest network operators are investing billions, we have too few network operators. That is, there's not enough competition, and we're stuck with local market duopoly unless new entrants can break through with next generation mobile broadband."

He continued that "This plan wisely includes an overdue review of wholesale competition rules in the United States." He also wrote that "Big legacy carriers control too much of our valuable spectrum. Incentives for broadcasters and government agencies to liberate some of their unused spectrum for mobile broadband will be pro-competitive and we welcome such incentives. We are delighted that FCC appears to appreciate the problem of middle mile bottlenecks in high capacity backhaul lines faced by all but the largest two wireless network operators and will consider addressing this problem with pro-competitive reform of special access pricing and terms of service abuses. CCIA also supports the Plan's pro-competitive initiatives on data roaming."

The Public Knowledge (PK) released a statement on the FCC document. "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. Specifically, we commend the Commission for undertaking a review of wholesale competition rules. An examination of special access rates should also be included under the plan, to provide relief for business customers and consumers from costs that could not be justified in a true competitive market."

Robert Atkinson, head of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), stated in a release that the document "has many laudable recommendations to expand broadband access".

Kyle McSlarrow, head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), stated in a release that the FCC "should be commended for their efforts to draft a broadband `blueprint´ that surveys the technology landscape, that identifies industry progress to date and remaining policy challenges, and that suggests new ideas and reforms to advance our common goal of promoting investment, innovation, and broadband networks that are second to none. As with any report of this size, variety and complexity, we expect that we will have points of agreement and disagreement on specific issues. But the Report makes a significant contribution to the dialogue, and we remain committed to working with all members of the Commission in discussing new ideas and initiatives that will facilitate the ubiquitous availability and use of robust broadband networks."

Steve Largent, head of the CTIA, stated in a release that the "CTIA and our member companies are extremely pleased that spectrum is recognized as being pivotal to the National Broadband Plan. We appreciate the FCC's and the Broadband team's focus on making `500 MHz of spectrum for broadband within 10 years, of which 300 MHz should be made available for mobile use within five years.´"

Josh Silver of the Free Press stated in a release that "The FCC's National Broadband Plan represents a decisive break from the policies of the Bush administration." He added that the FCC should confront "the market power of the cable and telephone giants that control the broadband market. The problems caused by the lack of competition are what led the Congress to order up a National Broadband Plan. 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."

Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) stated in a release that "We will examine closely the details of the National Broadband Plan, and encourage Members of Congress to do the same." He elaborated that "We were pleased by initial indications from FCC members that any spectrum reallocation would be voluntary, and were therefore prepared to move forward in a constructive fashion on that basis. However, we are concerned by reports today that suggest many aspects of the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised."

Walter McCormick, head of the US Telecom, stated in a release that "We are pleased by the Commission's recognition of the importance of intercarrier compensation and universal service support to the financial fundamentals of the broadband industry, and by its recognition that it will be through private sector investment and innovation that America's broadband deployment goals will be met, that consumers will be benefited by meaningful competition and choice, that jobs will be created, and that our national objectives will be achieved."

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google and Chairman of the New America Foundation (NAF) wrote in a statement, "Let's install broadband fiber as part of every federally-funded infrastructure project, from highways to mass transit. And let’s deploy broadband fiber to every library, school, community health center, and public housing facility in the U.S.