FCC Gets to Work on Mapping Out Broadband Plan

WASHINGTON — With its work on the transition to digital television winding down, the Federal Communications Commission is moving ahead with its next great task: developing a forward-looking national broadband strategy.

At the first meeting under incoming Chairman Julius Genachowski, the commissioners heard updates on both issues this afternoon.

“Broadband is not a solution to any single problem. It is part of the solution to almost every major problem our country faces,” Genachowski said. “The sad reality is that we are slipping behind as a nation when it comes to broadband.”

Congress directed the FCC to develop a broadband roadmap as part of the economic stimulus package, which also allocated $7.2 billion to the departments of Commerce and Agriculture to fund broadband projects. The agencies administering the funding released their application guidelines yesterday.

Last month, the FCC recruited Blair Levin, a former chief of staff at the agency, to come back to head up the development of the broadband strategy.

At today’s meeting, Levin outlined how that process will work, emphasizing his goal to give all stakeholders visibility into the commission’s proceedings, and base all decisions on sound, tested data.

“We want it to be open,” he said. “That means transparent, that everyone will be able to see the debate as it unfolds.”

Levin is planning a series of more than 20 workshops for FCC staffers in August and September to focus on various components of the strategy, such as benchmarks or individual technologies like wireless or cable. He said those meetings will be available to the public via Webcast.

To help track the development of the strategy, the FCC launched a beta version of the Broadband.gov Web site today.

The FCC has already collected hundreds of sets of public comments on its plan, and is now getting to work surveying the broadband landscape today.

“First, we’re going to take a look at the current situation,” Levin said, talking of the need to assess broadband access both in the United States and abroad. “It would be a mistake in my view if we were to do this report and not acknowledge what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

Levin also plans to account for the impact of emerging networking technologies, such as the cable industry’s development of the DOCSIS 3.0 standard, and WiMAX and LTE in wireless into the strategy.

“We’re going to take the present, we’re going to map on the future,” Levin said.

Levin said he is planning a series of hearing this fall to engage the public in the process. Many will take place in markets outside of Washington, he said.

By September, Levin plans to report to the commission the “factual state of play,” a quantified market survey that would broadly outline the services currently available.

By November, he is aiming to report a gap analysis highlighting the areas that are lagging farthest behind. The following month, he hopes to deliver a policy framework that would outline various approaches to correct broadband shortcomings without delivering specific policy recommendations, which he said would be forthcoming in January.

The FCC’s report is due to Congress Feb. 17.

As for the DTV transition, which was completed on June 12, the commissioners heard what could be the last formal status update from a panel of staffers who have been overseeing various aspects of the FCC’s outreach efforts.

They estimated that roughly 2 million households without cable service still don’t have the converter boxes they need to make their analog TV sets receive digital signals. That is a significant reduction from the estimated number of unprepared households at the time of the transition.

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