Markey: Broadband plan 'visionary'

The National Broadband Plan laid out Monday by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) offers a far-reaching, multi-pronged strategy for expanding broadband access.

The plan, scheduled to be delivered to Congress on Tuesday, is a roadmap to extending broadband access to 90 percent of U.S. households by 2020.

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Some of the proposals could come with a hefty price tag, but the FCC did not give any cost estimates on Monday.

It insisted that most of the initiatives will be self-supporting and more than covered by the proceeds from any spectrum auctions that occur over the next 10 years.

Money needed to fund the rest of the projects would be in the hundreds of millions, not billions, FCC officials said. They said the FCC was not asking for more money from Congress to carry out the initiatives, but stressed that Congress can appropriate additional public funding to help speed up the rollout of broadband-expansion projects.

The FCC plans to post the 359-page report on its website on Tuesday before officially handing it over to Congress on Wednesday.
FCC officials stressed Monday that the document is a strategic plan that will set off a number of rulemaking procedures at the FCC. While it makes key recommendations, most of the items will require additional action by the FCC or Congress to fully implement.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who drafted the provision in the 2009 federal stimulus that commissioned the FCC’s report, was one of several Democrats who praised the agency’s work.

“This plan will lower and remove barriers to new competition in services, networks and devices,” he said in a statement. “And it will enable state-of-the-art, high-speed access to educational opportunities, improved healthcare, increased energy efficiency and other national priorities.”

The National Association of Broadcasters had a less enthusiastic reaction to the plan’s proposal to let broadcasters participate in voluntary spectrum auctions in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.

The FCC also outlined a proposal to require airwave license holders to pay annual fees for use of those airwaves.

“We are concerned by reports today that suggest many aspects of the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised,” said NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton.

“Moreover, as the nation’s only communications service that is free, local and ubiquitous, we would oppose any attempt to impose onerous new spectrum fees on broadcasters.”

The plan offers a number of recommendations on how to expand broadband access:

• It calls on lawmakers to reform the Universal Service Fund — a 1996 program that ensures the availability of telecommunications services nationwide — so that the money also applies to broadband expansion projects.

• Five hundred megahertz of airwaves will be released in the next 10 years, with 300 MHz being available in the next five, for wireless broadband applications.

• The FCC will initiate a proceeding to make broadband providers’ data more transparent and public. For example, the FCC will propose ways for companies such as AT&T and Verizon to share the prices they charge consumers for broadband service.

• The FCC wants to create an interoperable public safety network enabling “seamless exchange of information wirelessly.” Agency officials say it will cost about $6.5 million in capital expenditures for the network to be fully operational, with additional investment each year starting in 2012.

• One proposal would require existing airwave license holders to pay an annual fee for the use of that spectrum. The initiative would only apply to licensees that did not pay for the airwaves at auction (i.e., broadcasters and federal agencies).

FCC officials say more than half of the proposals laid out in the National Broadband Plan will be able to be carried out without any congressional action.

But some members of Congress are already looking forward to rolling up their sleeves and going to work on examining, picking apart and enacting the broadband provisions.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee with jurisdiction over Internet issues, said the plan will serve as a “roadmap to ... more robust, accessible broadband infrastructure.”

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“This plan, however, is not self-executing. It will require bipartisan support and long-term commitment to implement.”

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Kerry’s counterpart in the House, also told The Hill last week that he expects Congress to assume a large role overseeing the plan and that it will need substantial approvals from Congress to proceed.

The Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, which Boucher chairs, will hold its first hearing on the plan March 25. All five FCC commissioners have been invited to attend.

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