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FCC Takes First Step Toward Broadband Strategy

Government and FCC national broadband policy
WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission today took up its charge to begin work on drafting a national broadband strategy, unanimously approving a notice of inquiry seeking comments from interested parties about the steps the government should take to expand and improve deployment and adoption of the nation's digital infrastructure.

The idea of a national broadband strategy, a longstanding priority among advocacy groups and some tech-conscious policy and law makers, became a statutory imperative under the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed in February. The recovery bill is funneling more than $7 billion to agencies within the Commerce and Agriculture Departments to fund network build-outs, and called on the FCC to develop a broadband plan and report it to Congress next February.

"This is a good news item," said Michael Copps, interim chairman of the commission. "In spite of the fact that it springs in part from an economic downturn that has put a lot of our fellow citizens on the ropes, it signals that at long last we are getting serious about marking our citizens and our country more competitive, prosperous and fulfilled."

The broadband challenge has been the subject of considerable discussion in Washington, particularly since it became clear that some of the stimulus money would be set aside for spanning the digital divide. In issuing today's inquiry, the FCC is calling for comment from the broadest possible assortment of interested parties, ranging from consumers to businesses, small and large Internet providers, tribal lands and all levels of government.

But unlike the agencies in Commerce and Agriculture, the FCC has no money to give out. Those agencies, the National Telecommunications Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service, recently concluded their own series of meetings as they seek to determine what criteria they should use to evaluate applications. NTIA and RUS are accepting public comment through this week, and are expected to begin accepting grant applications in June.

The FCC is directed to lend technical expertise to NTIA and RUS as they evaluate the grant applications, but today's meeting marked the beginning of a longer-term initiative. There is general agreement that the stimulus funds are only a down payment on the nation's Internet communications systems, so the FCC is trying to develop a roadmap advising policymakers on how to move forward in what many are fond of describing as the preeminent infrastructure challenge of our time.

"If we do our job well, this will be the most formative, and I believe transformative, proceeding in the commission's history," Copps said.

Each of the FCC's bureaus had a hand in crafting the far-ranging notice of inquiry approved today, and Copps said he expects that all seven will continue to collaborate as the agency sorts through the comments to formulate a coherent strategy.

The FCC's action this morning, though more of a ribbon-cutting ceremony than anything, drew praise from some of the groups that have long been calling for progressive broadband policies

"The FCC this morning took a long overdue step to improving our nation's economy," Gigi Sohn, president of the digital-rights group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "Despite the recognition that high-speed Internet services are necessary, this is the first time a government agency will take a comprehensive look at the situation and recommend a course of action to remedy our rapidly declining broadband ranking."

Similar accolades came from media-reform group Free Press.

The FCC's notice of inquiry approaches the problem from several sides. It asks for comment on how effective the existing market conditions have been toward furthering the goal of affordable, universal broadband access. It then asks the same question of government, posing two questions that are likely to elicit very different responses depending on where one fits into the free-market vs. regulation discussion.

While critics are fond of describing the broadband marketplace as one dominated by monopolies or, at best, duopolies, anti-regulationists maintain that big telecom and cable firms compete vigorously with each other.

For Copps, it is clear enough that the government has a role to play in building out broadband networks, just as it has been involved in historical infrastructure projects like canals, railroads and rural electrification. The problem, he said, is that the hodgepodge of policies haven't been up to the challenge of a unified broadband strategy.

"Enlightened public policy -- that has been what is lacking with regard to broadband," Copps told reporters after the meeting.

In its notice of inquiry, the FCC is trying to make clear that the issue at stake is not broadband simply for the sake of broadband. Affordable access to high-speed service didn't make it to a tier-one priority on the president's domestic agenda just so people could watch house pets do tricks on YouTube. The agency is asking for suggestions on how ubiquitous broadband would mesh with a host of other policy objectives of Congress and the administration, including education, energy efficiency, public safety, worker training and cybersecurity.

An often neglected piece of the broadband discussion is the demand side of the equation. A recent Pew study found that one third of non-Internet users simply weren't interested in getting online. The stimulus package allocates $250 million to the NTIA for education programs and public computing centers to kindle consumer awareness of the benefits of broadband and spur demand. Similarly, the FCC is looking for input on how to address the demand issue in the long term, particularly among the population segments with the lowest adoption rates, such as seniors, minorities and low-income Americans.

The FCC also wants advice on how to manage its wireless spectrum more efficiently to free up airwaves that could be used for broadband networks in rural areas, a movement that is already gaining traction in Congress. Similarly, the FCC is calling for suggestions on how it might revise the Universal Service Fund, a trough of money used to subsidize phone service for low-income Americans, to include broadband. USF reform has been on the table at the FCC for at least a decade, but so far has seen little movement.

Just like the stimulus bill leaves the definitions of key terms up to the agencies, the FCC's call for comment asks for input on how it should define and measure variables like affordability and quality of service.

To help inform that process, the FCC will also be looking to improve the data it has on broadband deployment and adoption. The FCC recently began receiving more detailed information about the caliber of service individual Americans have from the Census Bureau, and it is expected to partner with the NTIA on a broadband mapping project that also received funding under the stimulus bill.

The FCC's notice also asks for input on how to deal with volatile issues like the level of open-network provisions that should be required of the providers.

The drive toward collecting better data to make more informed policy decisions was a guiding theme of today's meeting. In addition to kicking off the broadband plan, which was clearly the star of the show, the FCC also adopted items to collect better data on the state of competition in the video market and diversity in media ownership.

The commissioners generally agreed that its data-collection efforts in a variety of areas under its purview had fallen short in recent years. They pledged to rely more on statistical and empirical evidence as they move forward.

"Rendering rules on an unsure factual foundation is akin to building a house on quicksand," Commissioner Robert McDowell said.