FCC unveils National Broadband Plan

The agency takes the wraps off a major proposal, to be presented to Congress this week, that could cost as much as $350 billion of public and private money.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

WASHINGTON, DC - The Federal Communications Commission made its National Broadband Plan public Monday outlining specific recommendations for policy makers over the next decade to ensure all Americans get access to high-speed Internet.

Congress asked the FCC as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February 2009 to come up with a comprehensive plan to spread affordable broadband access throughout the U.S., with the goal of creating more jobs for Americans, improving health care, and encouraging energy independence. The FCC task force, which has been working on the report for nearly a year, will present its 360-page report to the FCC commissioners on Tuesday and it will present the report to Congress on Wednesday. A summary of the report is posted on the FCC Web site.

The FCC has been leaking bits and pieces of the plan to the public over the past couple of weeks. And much of what is in the final version is not surprising. For example, the plan calls for expanding the $8 billion Universal Service Fund, which provides subsidized phone service throughout the U.S., to also include broadband. The plan also calls on the FCC to make 500MHz of new wireless spectrum available within 10 years for licensed and unlicensed use. The plan recommends that 300MHz of that spectrum should become available within the next five years.

One of the most controversial issues to come out of the plan is the reallocation of wireless spectrum. While the report recommends that the FCC reallocate about 20MHz of underutilized government spectrum, it also recommends that the agency get about 120MHz of spectrum from TV broadcasters. Officials who worked on developing the plan said Monday that they hope TV broadcasters will voluntarily give up a good portion of the spectrum. The plan proposes incentives to encourage TV broadcasters in the biggest markets, where new spectrum will likely be needed first, to reauction their licenses.

But TV broadcasters, who caught wind of the proposal months ago, have rallied to oppose it.

Reforming the Universal Service Fund could also prove to be a controversial topic. Rural phone companies have argued for years that reforms would hurt their ability to provide service in the least populated areas of the country. Regulators have talked for years about reforming how the program is funded, which today is paid for by consumers based on long-distance phone usage.

Billion-dollar questions
Officials said the plan is a road map. The FCC, the Obama administration, and Congress will now be tasked with taking action on the recommendations. In terms of overall cost, the task force estimated in September that the plan could cost as much as $350 billion to implement. Exactly, how much of this will be paid for with tax dollars versus how much will be paid for by private industry investment is not yet known.

The bulk of the expense will likely be paid for by private industry, which will be encouraged to upgrade networks and expand coverage. But the plan does call for between $12 billion and $16 billion to be allocated by the government over the next 10 years to build and help fund the operation of a national public safety wireless network. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has already talked about this aspect of the plan and has said that public money is a necessity to achieve this goal.

Officials, who worked on the plan, said that a small amount of tax payer money will be needed to encourage broadband adoption, but the bulk of the cost lies in the deployment of a national broadband network. Congress may decide to allocate funds to speed up deployment and increase network speeds, but it's not necessary, officials said. The proposed wireless auctions, along with investment from the private sector, should cover the cost of implementing the 10-year plan and achieving the overarching goals, officials said.

Stay tuned for updates and additional stories that dig deeper into the details of the 360-page plan.

Correction, 2:35 p.m. PST: The FCC has updated the estimated cost of the public safety network. The new figure has been added to the story.