Updated at 10:20 a.m. PDT with additional analysis and comments
WASHINGTON--As other government agencies race to dole out $7.2 billion in stimulus funds for broadband deployment, the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday began the process of developing a holistic plan for improving broadband access nationwide.
The commission adopted a notice of inquiry that will seek out comment on a wide variety of issues affecting broadband deployment from diverse parties across the country. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the FCC has until next February to consider these issues and develop a national broadband plan.
"This commission has never, I believe, received a more serious charge than the one to spearhead development of a national broadband plan," acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said.
The notice of inquiry will ask for input on numerous issues, including: effective and efficient mechanisms for ensuring broadband, how to define and measure portability, affordable pricing and quality of services, the broadband program's impact on universal service programs, adoption and digital literacy rates, and how to advance policy goals such as public safety and the improvement of health care services through broadband.
"Our notice of inquiry seeks to be open, inclusive, out-reaching and data-hungry," Copps said. "It will go outside Washington, D.C., to rural communities, the inner city and tribal lands. It will go where the facts and the best analysis we can find take it."
The commissioner noted that the notice of inquiry will also consider the complications and challenges of implementing broadband, including ensuring openness, avoiding invasions of people's privacy, and ensuring cybersecurity.
Both Copps and Commissioner Jon Adelstein emphasized the need for the government to take a stronger role in fostering nationwide broadband access and adoption.
"Real economic and social progress needs to be fueled by both vigorous private enterprise and enlightened public policy," Copps said. "The missing ingredient until this year has been the enlightened public policy."
The media reform organization Free Press praised the FCC for beginning the process for increasing government guidance in the telecommunications sector.
"The blind deregulatory regime that we have today is a blueprint for what to avoid in the future," said Derek Turner, research director of Free Press. "Under the last administration's wait-and-see approach, competition disappeared, speeds stagnated, prices went through the roof, and the open Internet was placed in jeopardy."
Commissioner Robert McDowell said the FCC should take care to acknowledge the telecommunications industry's successes as well as its shortcomings.
The sector, he noted, "has positive momentum at a time when other sectors are struggling."
Susanne Guyer, Verizon's senior vice president of federal regulatory affairs, said in a statement that the company looks forward to working with the commission.
"Given its importance to economic growth, job creation, and international competitiveness, creating a climate for investment in advanced broadband networks should be job one at the FCC," she said. "Through this plan, the FCC can take a major step toward ensuring that all Americans have access to broadband networks and have the skills and devices necessary to access the economic and social benefits available through broadband connections."
Bumpy road ahead?
But some telecommunications policy experts say that the road toward a comprehensive broadband policy could be a bumpy one. The main reason is that the Commission has opened the inquiry up to a wide array of participants. And it is asking a broad range of questions and even asking respondents to share any other thoughts about what the policy should entail.
And unlike previous FCC inquiries, this one has a hard deadline of February 2010. This means that the FCC staff will have to work quickly to compile what is likely to be a tsunami of comments on a broad range of topics. Melding these comments into a cohesive set of policies will be a huge challenge.
"At the end of the day someone has to write something up," said Glenn Richards, a partner in Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman's communications law practice. "What concerns me is that the FCC will get so many comments from so many different entities, it might be hard to come away with something that is useful."
There are also expected to be big battles among different groups as the comment cycle progresses. The most obvious may be the fight for Net Neutrality laws or regulation. Supporters of Net Neutrality regulation believe that there should be protections to ensure that applications are not blocked or degraded on the Internet. But service providers say that new regulation could hinder their ability to manage their networks.
Richards also believes another big fight between incumbent service providers and consumer advocates and others may center on defining what is considered an "under-served" region. One of the goals of the new broadband policy is to get affordable broadband to as many people as possible.
"When we talk about under-served regions, you have to define what that means," he said. "Is it sufficient to have one provider in an area? Or is two enough? Do we need to set policy and provide funding to regions for three providers, when some areas of the country don't have any broadband? These are going to be some of the tough questions that will be asked and debated."
But when it comes to doling out the money from the economic stimulus package, most of it will already be allocated by the time the FCC gets around to finishing its national broadband policy.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are in charge of distributing the $7.2 billion in stimulus funds for broadband. And these distributions will happen in three phases, with the first phase occurring between April and June and the last phase occurring by September 30, 2010.
Meanwhile, the FCC's broadband policy is due to be finished in February 2010, which means two-thirds of the stimulus money will have already been allocated by the time the mapping and policy issues have been defined. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation. Advisers to President Obama have said they would have liked to have had the policies in place before allocating money, but the economic crisis is too severe to wait.
Watchdog groups have expressed concern that money could be wasted without achieving the ultimate goal of improving broadband access, speed, and affordability for all Americans.
But Richards said that this should not take away from the importance of the policy that will be set under these new guidelines.
"Chairman Copps said during the hearing that he has wanted to establish a national broadband policy for years," Richards said. "And it would have been nice to have most of this in place before they started handing out the money. But the policy they are defining now will really be important in terms of setting a roadmap for future regulatory policy. And that is really important."