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FCC digs into broadband controversies

A task force that is shaping a national plan to provide ubiquitous high-speed Internet access tackles the USF, wireless spectrum, and cable set-top boxes.

The Federal Communications Commission is taking on difficult and controversial issues as it works toward developing a comprehensive national broadband plan.

On Wednesday the agency heard from an FCC task force on the progress that it's making in writing that broadband plan, which will be presented to Congress in February.

The FCC has been tasked with developing a plan that will get broadband services to all Americans. In working to come up with a comprehensive policy, the FCC has tackled several controversial issues, most notably reforming the Universal Service Fund, reallocating wireless spectrum, and forcing more competition in the market for cable set-top boxes.

One of the top items on the FCC task force's to-do list is reforming the $7 billion rural phone subsidy program called the Universal Service Fund. This program, which also provides funding for schools and libraries through its E-rate program, is funded by consumers, who are charged extra fees on their long-distance phone bills. Specifically, the agency wants to expand the program to help fund broadband service in parts of the country where private industry doesn't find it profitable to invest.

The task force didn't provide long-term recommendations for transitioning USF into funding broadband deployments. But in the short term, it suggested extending some current programs such as life-line link-up to schools and other public areas to provide more access to unemployed people who may not have Internet connectivity at home. The idea is that these individuals can use broadband in these public areas to look for jobs.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said it will take time to get reforms in place. He noted that the national broadband plan won't directly affect USF, but he said the program, once it's expanded, will eventually help fund and become a key part of helping get broadband to underserved parts of the country.

"It's tempting to kick the can [USF reform} further down the road," he said. "But for many reasons it's important to begin tackling these issues now. We must make sure that the fund fully supports the technology of today and tomorrow, not just the technology of the past."

But the process is going to be a long one, he said. And he wouldn't comment on whether true reform could be achieved in his term as chairman.

The FCC task force also reiterated its plans to re-evaluate spectrum issues. Genachowski has said publicly that one of his top priorities is reallocating and finding more spectrum that can be used to build wireless broadband services. Both he and the CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless industry, say there is a looming spectrum crisis that could result in dire consequences without adequate attention now.

During its report to the commission, the broadband task force said it is working with Congress to inventory and assess current spectrum usage in the U.S. It is calling for Congress to also require periodic review of spectrum uses and to find ways to clear spectrum bands that aren't serving other uses, such as wireless broadband.

The task force also said during its presentation Wednesday that it's looking at ways to spur more competition in the cable set-top box market. The group said that a lack of competition in the set-top box market has also resulted in a lack of innovation. The agency feels that more competition in this market would spur companies to develop new Internet applications and services that could be accessed via TVs.

The FCC is considering requiring paid TV providers, such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and Verizon Communications to supply a low-cost network interface device that would allow people to access the Internet on their TVs and to access cable TV without using a cable box.