FCC eyeing national broadband
By Joelle Tessler
WASHINGTON — More corners of the country would have high-speed Internet access and existing connections would become much faster under a sweeping proposal to overhaul U.S. broadband policy that is being unveiled today.
The plan from the Federal Communications Commission is meant to guide the government's strategy on broadband for the next decade and beyond. It reflects the Obama administration's concern that the nation that invented the Internet is in danger of falling behind the development of online applications in other countries that have faster broadband speeds at lower prices.
Yet it's not certain the FCC can find the corporate support and legal clearance to carry out the entire plan.
Already, broadcasters oppose one key proposal, which calls for reclaiming some airwaves from TV stations and auctioning those frequencies to companies that deliver wireless Internet access. The FCC also wants to rewrite complicated telecommunications rules in order to pay for broadband using a federal program that now mainly subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural areas. Congress and federal regulators already have been trying to modernize that program for years.
Funding could be a question as well. The FCC does not estimate the total cost of the plan. It insists that its proposals could be paid for by auctioning off slices of the airwaves. But the agency will have to persuade Congress that as much as $20 billion from the airwave auctions be set aside for broadband plans and not get routed to other purposes.
That would come on top of the $7.2 billion for broadband included in the 2009 stimulus bill. The Commerce and Agriculture departments are handing out that money now.
Last year's stimulus bill also required the FCC to come up with the broadband plan, which is being delivered to Congress today. The plan argues that high-speed Internet access is no longer just a luxury but is critical for economic development, education, health care and other aspects of daily life.
"Broadband is an infrastructure challenge that's very akin to what we've faced in the past with telephones and electricity," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an interview.
The proposal sets a goal of connecting 100 million U.S. households to broadband connections of 100 megabits per second — at least 20 times faster than most home connections now — by 2020. Although existing connections are often fast enough to let people watch TV shows or movies on computers, faster connections would open new kinds of services, such as fast-loading, high-definition videos ideal for viewing on big-screen TVs.
The plan also calls for every American community to have at least one "anchor" institution, such as a school, library or hospital, that has ultra-high-speed Internet access. The FCC defines that as at least a gigabit per second, 10 times faster than the 100 megabits per second envisioned for home connections.
When rural areas lack broadband access, it's often because phone and cable companies haven't found it worthwhile to invest in dragging high-speed lines to remote places that would have few subscribers. One way the FCC hopes to expand broadband use is with wireless technology.
The wireless industry currently licenses about 500 megahertz of the wireless spectrum. In a move akin to adding more lanes to a freeway, the FCC hopes to free up 500 megahertz more over the next decade, both for licensed purposes and for uses that don't require a license, such as Wi-Fi networks. The agency hopes to get roughly 120 megahertz of that spectrum from broadcasters of free, over-the-air TV. It would allow broadcasters to unload frequencies they don't need and share in the proceeds raised by auctioning those airwaves to wireless companies.
That proposal has run into fierce resistance from the National Association of Broadcasters. TV broadcasters already gave up more than 100 megahertz of spectrum when they shut off analog signals last year and began broadcasting only in digital. Many say they plan to use their remaining frequencies to transmit high-definition signals, to "multicast" multiple channels and to deliver mobile TV to phones, laptops and cars.
THE PROPOSAL: Bring high-speed Internet access to more areas of the country and make existing connections faster.
THE IMPETUS: The Obama administration is concerned that the U.S. is falling behind the development of online applications compared with other countries with faster speeds at lower prices.
THE SKEPTICISM: It's not certain that the Federal Communications Commission can find the corporate support and legal clearance to fully carry it out.