March 15, 2010

FCC Set To Announce National Broadband Plan

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will unveil plans on Tuesday to both dramatically increase the speed of broadband Internet for most of the U.S. and free up additional space for wireless service. Both proposals have drawn mixed reaction from those affected.

One of the primary goals of the new legislation is to increase online connection and download speeds by nearly 25-times their current levels. The FCC report states that they would like to have 100 Mbps speed available to 100 million American homes by 2020. The average current speed, according to Reuters, is just 4 Mbps. While such an increase would certainly be welcome by Internet users, the FCC has not yet released specific details on how they plan to implement this broadband strategy.

In a recent interview with Grant Gross of IDG News Service, Benjamin Lennett, a policy analyst with the New American Foundation's Open Technology Initiative, states that fiber deployments could achieve the 100 Mbps goal, but not copper or wireless-based services. Current Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) standards are capable of reaching the benchmark, Lennett adds, but since cable subscribers share resources, speeds are dependent upon the usage rates of other individuals in the immediate area.

Ultimately, Lennett concludes, it will require a "substantial upgrade of the existing broadband infrastructure" to make 100 Mbps a reality -- which introduces into the discussion the matter of cost. According to a March 3 Wall Street Journal article, the FCC plan, which is also supposed to provide easier access to free or inexpensive wireless broadband, could cost upwards of $25 billion dollars to implement. According to Lennett, in other countries where similar fiber-based infrastructure overhauls were required, "it has been some combination of government assistance and robust competition that has driven the upgrades and deployments."

As mentioned above, the FCC also intends to address the availability of no-cost or low-cost wireless broadband access, though few details on this proposal have been made public as of yet. Critics are concerned that doing so could cause commercial Internet providers to invest less time and capital in their operations, or simply drop out of the market altogether. Users, too, have expressed concern. In a March 14 PCMag.com article, a user identified only as "ebystrom" predicts that this is the first step in "government takeover of the industry," adding, "It won't happen overnight, but incrementally."

For their part, some current broadband providers have already voiced their displeasure. In a March 14 Reuters article, Qwest Communications called the FCC proposals "a dream," while AT&T called upon the federal agency to resist "extreme forms of regulation." Furthermore, PCMag.com's David Murphy reports that T-Mobile has run a series of tests that prove " the spectrum used for the government's free wireless service ambitions would interfere with its own spectrum by raising performance issues during peak calling times on its network."

The plan also includes a proposal to free up roughly 500MHz of wireless spectrum for use by the general public, and one option being considered is to offer television stations a sort of profit-sharing plan in exchange for unused spectrum. According to Gross, television broadcasters are allowed 300 MHz but many use as little as 36 MHz, which theoretically could free up a significant amount of spectrum for broadband use.

Broadcast television outlets and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), who have already lost a quarter of their previously held spectrum in the shift to digital television earlier in the year, are resisting the proposal, however. In a statement sent to the FCC in late 2009, a coalition of 16 TV broadcasters claimed that "spectrum reallocation from television to wireless broadband would amount to the commission picking industry winners and losers"¦ [and] would threaten the ability of the tens of millions of Americans who rely exclusively on over-the-air service to maintain access to emergency, news, and public affairs information."

Additional proposals included in the FCC's broadband plan include an overhaul of the Universal Service Fund (USF), which currently subsidizes traditional Internet service in rural areas and would be re-focused to supporting broadband; the establishment of a $12 to $16 national broadband network for emergency response personnel such as police and fire fighters, which has drawn criticism from some public safety personnel who would prefer to create a privatized network; and the implementation of a 1 gigabit per second speed benchmark for the government, schools, libraries, and healthcare facilities.

Daniel Hays, telecom practice director at the consulting firm PRTM, told Gross that the plan was "exciting and ambitious," but added, "Until we've seen the details, what we've seen so far is sort of like the goal of climbing Mount Everest. It's a really great goal, but"¦ getting it done in 10 years is going to be a Herculean task."

Conversely, in an interview with Reuters, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski called the broadband plan "both aspiration and achievable." He added, "We've developed a plan that is a real win-win for everyone involved and we have every expectation that it will work."

According to the FCC website, broadband Internet is defined as "data transmission speeds exceeding 200 kilobits per second (Kbps), or 200,000 bits per second, in at least one direction: downstream (from the Internet to the user's computer) or upstream (from the user's computer to the Internet)."


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