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FCC's national broadband plan

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The Washington Post's Cecilia Kang talks about the FCC's long-awaited plan to bring broadband Internet connections to every home and business in America

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Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Tech Policy Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; 12:00 PM

The Washington Post's tech policy writer Cecilia Kang, who also authors the Post Tech blog, will be online Tuesday, March 15 at Noon ET to answer questions about the FCC's plan to bring high-speed Internet to the entire country.

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For background, read the executive summary (pdf) and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's op-ed on how the U.S. is falling behind in being digitally literate.

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Reston, Va.: Where will the new 500 MHz of spectrum come from? What existing users will these frequencies be taken from? Will the networks' critical systems be shielded from the effects of intense solar storms?

Cecila Kang: Hi readers. Happy to take your questions on this dense and technical plan, that could have real affects on real people. Fire away!

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Owings Mills, Md.: What kind of incentives can the government realistically provide to entice service providers to continue to spend billions in network upgrades needed to accomplish the '100 Squared' goal - 100 Mbps connections for 100 million homes?

Cecila Kang: Hi Owings Mills. Great question. What motivates anyone to spend and make capital expeditures? The promise of subscribers is one and the potential of government funds (from Universal Service Fund) could be another. But you bring up a good point on ongoing operational costs. Once the fiber is laid out or cell towers raised in rural areas, for example, what are the costs for keeping those businesses going? Especially when there aren't that many people to serve.

It's a vexing problem that is behind the $8 billion Universal Service Fund. Some say that that fund is riddled with problems. Now it's being repurposed for broadband -- same fund, but different technology.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) is working on a bill to rewrite the USF. We will see if the new bill will tackle some of these questions.

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Washington DC: How does the broadband plan interplay with the proposed broadband stimulus?

Cecila Kang: The national broadband plan is separate from the $7.2 billion stimulus funds dedicated to broadband expansion. That program is still being funded by the National Telecommunications and Information Association and Agriculture Department and was meant to jump start jobs and bring broadband to rural and other underserved areas.

They are connected in spirit, if you will, with the Obama administration's goal to bring universal access to broadband. But they should be viewed as different vehicles to get to that same goal.

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Arlington, Va.: What does the FCC plan mean for me? I'm already in a city that has plentiful access and high Internet speeds (via Fios). The only Internet complaint I have is how slow mobile browsing can be, but I'm not sure if that is related to this.

Also - will this impact pricing, could the new plan lower my Fios bill?

Cecila Kang: Fabulous question. The answer in the short term is not at all. In the longer term, perhaps your bill may see changes only if competition is increased through this plan. If newcomers introduce more competition to the biggest Internet service providers (Verizon, ATT, Comcast)than you may see prices supressed and even speeds increased. In New York City, for exmample, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, and Verizon compete like crazy for customers. That's led to the highest speeds there.

In other areas (much of U.S. served by one phone and one cable company), prices have only gone up and speeds aren't ask fast. Comcast, for example, just last week raised by $2 a month its broadband charges for customers in New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania.

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Rockville, Md.: Why should we need high speed Internet for digital literacy. Any sort of Internet connection should do the job. What is so charming about large files? Video? Libraries of text? Giant databases?

I expect the connections we have now can sustain a lot of literacy. But high speed will give us movies and entertainment. Is that the education we seek?

Cecila Kang: Here's the reality: more kids are asked to do their homework online. To get a job, companies are asking for applications to be done online.

That doesn't call for big video files yet, but everything is moving in that direction.

But your question is interesting in that not everyone agrees that the federal government should be spending its resources (time and billions of dollars) on the Internet.

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Washington, D.C.: I read an analysis promoting a concept of receiving medical diagnosis over the internet. If it were to become a reality, healthcare savings could be enormous.

Is the FCC looking at utilizing the internet for medical issues such as initial diagnosis, standardized disease state management applications, patient-psychologist interactions, prescription orders....

Cecila Kang: Yes, what I didn't touch on in my story is that the national broadband plan has been portrayed as a foundation for other goals -- healthcare reform, improvement in education, energy savings etc.

Sounds good, harder to implement.

As for healthcare, the idea is that if you are in rural area with a unique condition, you can talk to a specialist in Los Angeles, for example, exchange video files and xrays to diagnose your condition and get over-the-Web treatment.

That's the idea, at least. And the FCC has made recommendations to other agencies (Education, Energency, Health and Human Services ) to carry out policies that put broadband at the center.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What is the industry politics behind this possible FCC move? What businesses would gain and which businesses may be harmed by this action?

Cecila Kang: Lots of politics. In general, business doesn't like too much regulation. And they are already calling for the FCC and Congress to be light-handed. And a big battle over reclassification of broadband to a Title 2 service is brewing in the background. This morning, Republican commissioners, Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker, warned against such a move.

But in general, this plan has been poised as sort of an "apple pie" proposal, in the words of Stifel Nicholaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast. Who can argue against more broadband access, closing the digital divide, more privacy, online safety for kids, and more competition?

But the devil is in the details.

Will the big bells and cable agree to line-sharing as alluded to in the proposal? I doubt it.

Will broadcasters give up spectrum without a fight? They aren't already.

Will rural carriers fight to protect their funding by the Universal Service Fund? You bet.

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McLean, Va.: The FCC does indeed mention the policy option of Title II reclasiification -- on page 337.

"Some commenters have suggested a second approach, in which the FCC would implement certain plan recommendations under its Title II authority, after classifying broadband services as telecommunications services. These commenters believe such an approach would provide a sounder legal basis for establishing direct support for rural broadband under the Universal Service Fund's High Cost program and broadband access under the Lifeline and Link-Up programs;41 requiring enhanced disclosures of broadband speed, performance and pricing;42 and other plan recommendations, including ensuring privacy protections regarding sharing of consumers' personal information.43 Commenters further note that classifying broadband services as telecommunications services would not require the application of all requirements of Title II to broadband.44 Congress gave the FCC "forbearance authority" in section 10 of the Act. Consistent with the comments, this forbearance authority would permit the FCC to narrowly tailor its use of Title II to advance the policies described above without imposing additional regulatory burdens. To the degree that wireless-based broadband is a common carrier service, section 332 of the Act grants similar authority to forbear.45 Other parties, however, believe that reverting to Title II to implement the plan would be unwise policy, contending that Title II is an illfitting, over-regulatory legal framework for broadband Internet access services.46 The FCC will consider these and related questions as it moves forward to implement the plan."

washingtonpost.com: Full text of the FCC's broadband plan (pdf)

Cecila Kang: Thanks. They do. But they don't take a position.

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Durham, N.C.: Telecomm companies are expected to be big beneficiaries under this plan. What about educational institutions, non-profits, etc.? Will this help not-for-profit efforts to expand connectivity and internet availability into under-served areas?

Cecila Kang: Great question. There is about $1 billion expected to be used for adoption efforts. That would include a digital literacy corps. to educate people on how to use broadband. That is one example of the role of non profits.

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McLean, Va.: How does the FCC define broadband competition?

Does the plan presume that the broadband market is competitive or not and what is the basis/standard for that assessment?

Cecila Kang: Fantastic question:

The FCC doesn't define broadband competition. They don't even specifically define what broadband means.

But they recognize that there isn't enough competition and that is why so many proposals are focused on increasing competition:

-set top box reforms

-data roaming for wireless

-data collection on speeds and prices

-potential line sharing for new competitors

-call to speed up policy reviews of special access reform

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Indio, Calif.: Does this mean that the government will force all IP's to provide 100mbpc to all of the USA or does it mean that the government will be the nation's provider of internet service and it will be 100 mbps?

Cecila Kang: neither. it's really just a goal, no mandates at this point

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Washington D.C.: Are there any repurcussions for RUS and NTIA changing the rules of the stimulus grants/loans late in the game?

Cecila Kang: no, shouldn't be. this is separate.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: I haven't yet read the plan but I have seen seemingly contradictory statements about whether the plan will require large operators to allow smaller firms to provide services using their land-based wires in competition with the large operators. Such competition would seem to be essential to bring cost in speed in line with other developed nations. Is such access included?

Cecila Kang: This is a very controversial idea, so the FCC appeared to introduce the concept with kid gloves. The agency says the idea should be considered but didn't go into this in detail and didn't go so far as to say there needs to be a policy.

Analysts say that this is such a controversial issue, that the FCC wanted to take political cover by introducing it but not committing.

Here is language on that:

Recommendation 4.7:

The FCC should comprehensively review its whole competition regulations to develop a coherent and effective framework and take expedited action based on that framework to ensure widespread availability of inputs for broadband services provided to small businesses, mobile providers and enterprise customers.

Recent filings at the FCC highlight additional dimensions of the FCC's wholesale regulatory framework that deserve attention, including competitive access to local fiber facilities ...

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Washington, D.C.Does the USF fees have an expiration date or do they go on forever? We also pay multiple times (ie: cell, home phone, etc.), will he be addressing that in his new bill?

Cecila Kang: I don't believe that there is an expiration date on USF, but I will get back to you if I'm wrong. As for multiple payments, that is something consumers clearly speaking out about.

The average home spends about $200 a month on communications services, according to some analysts. And even while some bundled services are being offered -- at overall discounts -- things like early termination fees keep people locked into plans. Or consumers end up paying a big penalty when they leave. These are things not addressed in the plan, but in separate proceedings at the FCC.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Cecilla,

The stimulus funds, you referred to earlier, are actually administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration via the Commerce Department.

Cecila Kang: yes, that is true. thanks for pointing out!

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Owings Mills, Md.: I believe the FCC is stating that broadband will be defined at any connection beginning at 4 Mb/s. Please see http://connectedplanetonline.com/residential_services/news/national-broadband-plan-details-0315/

Cecila Kang: Thanks for this.

And back to funding for 100 megabits to 100 homes goal: Chairman Julius Genachowski just said that there isn't funding for this goal. It's a benchmark hoped to be achieved by all the other policy and regulatory proposals.

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Durham, N.C.: Isn't the rather meek proposal to require same-wire competition the same as or very similar to the required telecomm competitions of the '90s that created the (long dead) CLEC industry? Bubble aside, that was a time period of major innovations and expansion for the industry, to the benefit of the incumbent carriers as much as anyone else. Are they expected to oppose any new competition requirements purely by reflex, or is this proposal somehow substantively different?

Cecila Kang: I don't have an answer, but put out your question.

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Rural, Va.: Does the plan deal with connection limits imposed by providers using satellite?

The only way I can access the net is by satellite. The pricing is high. And I exceed my daily limit with my college course stream that is only about 50 min.

Satellite providers should be required to offer unrestricted access.

Cecila Kang: Thank you for this question, as we haven't focused enough on satellite - an important resource particularly in rural areas.

In the plan, the FCC recommends the acceleration of 90 megahertz of mobile satellite spectrum. Specifically, it said the FCC should take actions that will optimize license flexibility sufficient to increase terrestrial broadband use of MSS spectrum ...

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Minneapolis, Minn.: How does or will the FCC respond to some people's concerns about the health effects from the radiofrequency radiation emitted from the broadband signals?

Cecila Kang: not mentioned in plan. but thank you for mentioning. lots more cell towers to be raised through this. and much more cellphone use.

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Spring Green, Wisc.: How can you compare this new effort to the mobile next generation expansions taking place in Europe?

Cecila Kang: I don't know enough about efforts in Europe. But thank you for mentioning. I'll look into it.

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Arlington, Va.: As people migrate away from landlines to technologies like VOIP over broadband, is there any movement to assist small, rural ILECs who are losing their precious access fees at a breakneck pace?

Cecila Kang: no. i think that is actually counter to the spirit of this plan. the idea is to embrace broadband and there are no clear proposals for how companies like ILECs could or could not be helped. thanks.

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Cecila Kang: Lots of great questions. Thanks so much for joining in the discussion. This plan -- in a big fat binder sitting on my lap -- will provide fodder for reporting for many months ahead. To keep the discussion going, please contact me at any time by email: kangc@washpost.com or on the Post Tech blog: voices.washingtonpost.com/posttech.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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