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FCC to begin broadband policy overhaul

The agency will begin hearings Wednesday to detail a road map for improving U.S. broadband access using federal stimulus money and future taxpayer dollars.

The Federal Communications Commission is set to start holding hearings on how to spend taxpayer money on building and upgrading broadband access in the U.S.

The $787 billion stimulus package passed by Congress earlier this year calls on the FCC to come up with a road map for how billions of dollars in government money should be spent to improve broadband in the U.S. The FCC has until next February to come up with a plan, and it's starting to hold hearings on Wednesday to discuss what will hopefully become a national broadband strategy.

As part of the process, the agency will look at ways to improve broadband coverage so that people living in rural areas have access to high speed Internet. And it will also be looking at ways to improve the speeds of existing broadband infrastructure. The FCC will also consider updating outdated communications policies to make them more relevant as more Americans get communications and TV service from non-traditional companies.

Many telecommunications experts say the new broadband framework being laid out will be the biggest task the FCC has handled since implementing the Telecom Act of 1996.

But getting the road map in place will likely spur heated debate among consumer groups and cable and phone companies, especially when it comes to controversial issues such as Net neutrality. Several consumer groups have already suggested that the government impose requirements on any money given as part of the stimulus package to ensure that Internet service providers keep their networks open. These groups don't want cable or phone companies blocking new services offered by competitors.

Phone and cable companies argue that imposing new regulation or laws could preclude them from managing their networks and therefore would stifle investment in this area. They are lobbying Congress and the FCC to ensure that stricter rules are not put in place.

Congress has allocated $7.2 billion for broadband as part of the overall stimulus package, but the issues that the FCC is hammering out will likely entail billions more of investment from the government in the future. Most likely, future funding will come from revisions to the Universal Service Fund.

This fund was originally created to help provide telephone access to rural Americans. But now it looks like the fund will be expanded to also provide funds for expanding broadband services. But this, too, is likely to be controversial, as rural phone and wireless companies would likely receive less money from the fund if it was expanded to cover broadband.