FCC's plan for broadband Internet access falls short

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, March 21, 2010; G01

The government has a big plan for broadband -- big enough that you'll want a broadband connection to download its full text.

But despite the bulk of the National Broadband Plan that the Federal Communications Commission published Tuesday at http://broadband.gov-- a 376-page, 11.5-megabyte file -- this set of blueprints doesn't represent much of a change from the existing market for high-speed Internet access.

The FCC hopes to speed up and expand broadband access, which are both big problems: 35 percent of adult Americans lack high-speed Internet access at home, and those who do connect at slower speeds than residents of other countries. A 2009 study by the International Telecommunications Union ranked the United States 17th in adopting information and communication technologies.

But the commission's plan relies on a rearrangement of the airwaves, a reshuffling of existing subsidies and tweaks to current regulations.

If those measures work as planned, we should have more choices for wireless broadband. But wireless carriers may not charge any less and could exert the same control over which devices we can run on their networks.

For faster connections, most of us will continue to be stuck with the same two wireline providers: the phone company and the cable company. Which, in turn, means that the cost of connectivity -- what the FCC's own research identified as the biggest factor holding back broadband -- isn't likely to get much lighter.

For most Internet users, the part of the FCC plan to focus on its fifth chapter, "Spectrum." This is where the Feds propose to scrounge around the airwaves to free up 500 MHz of capacity for broadband services by 2020, with a full 300 MHz due by 2015 -- up from a mere 50 MHz open for broadband today.

The FCC would first cobble together 180 MHz of spectrum unsold in past auctions, kept vacant by too-cautious interference rules or left unused by such firms as satellite-phone services.

The FCC would extract an additional 120 MHz from television broadcasters by encouraging them to give up unused frequencies and squeeze together on the dial (like how you'd rearrange a bookshelf to make room for a bound copy of the FCC plan). Those measures would not necessarily yank channels from the airwaves but would require viewers to rescan them.

Stations would keep a chunk of the proceeds from spectrum resold for broadband use, but expect most to fight this idea. One reason: The plan suggests that the FCC could impose more drastic changes to TV spectrum if broadcasters don't cooperate.

To extend wired broadband to places without it, the FCC plan would convert today's subsidies for phone service into a program to underwrite broadband deployment. That doesn't seem too objectionable; if you can upgrade a phone line to a data link fast enough to support Internet phone calling, why not?

But the plan suggests financing this by shifting the burden from phone users to Internet users. This change need not increase the total bill for voice and online service, but it will inevitably be labeled a "tax on the Internet" (cue shrieking violins).

To ease the deployment of both wired and wireless access, the FCC plan recommends fine-tuning dozens of regulations and laws governing such details as how Internet providers can set up equipment on telephone poles and the "special access" rates large carriers charge competitors for upstream links.

The FCC also proposes to collect more data about the price, performance and coverage of Internet services. Instead of only knowing that a company advertises downloads of "up to" whatever speed, you could check its average downloads, uploads and uptime. This research would also determine whether the plan's most ambitious goal -- 100 million bits-per-second access in 100 million homes by 2020 -- can be met.

The plan concludes with a series of chapters outlining how universal broadband will serve such "national purposes" as health care information technology, an energy-efficient "smart grid" for electricity and open access to the workings of government.

But even after all these changes, many requiring congressional action, many people will probably shop from the same cast of characters and pay about the same as today. Our wired services may be faster, and we may have more wireless choices, but we won't find the United States transformed into a land of cheap, fast bandwidth like South Korea.

That's the unavoidable result of a plan that doesn't rewrite history and eschews such ambitious but politically unfeasible measures as "open access" rules through which other countries require incumbent carriers to rent lines to competitors at wholesale rates. In that sense, it's not too different from the administration's health-care plan-- another middle-of-the-road measure that keeps much of the current market intact.

So will we have a grown-up debate about the ways and means of building out broadband, or are we in for a round of uninformed yammering about FCC disconnection panels?

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