Parity important in affordable, quality access

The United States today stands 16th among developed nations in broadband usage, and for the benefit of our national economy and quality of life, we must do better. Responding to this challenge in the Recovery Act, Congress directed the FCC to prepare a plan to expand broadband access and increase broadband adoption among those with access to it.

The FCC has done a superb job developing the National Broadband Plan, and I commend the members of the commission and the professional staff for the blueprint they have developed, which when implemented will lead to far higher levels of broadband usage.

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The National Broadband Plan makes a number of core recommendations.

Universal Service reform: The Plan proposes to transition the high-cost fund within the Universal Service Fund from supporting only basic voice telephone service to supporting both voice and broadband service.

This recommendation very closely tracks a central provision in the comprehensive Universal Service Reform legislation I put forward two years ago with my colleague Sen. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) and which was the subject of a legislative hearing in our subcommittee last year.

Today, Universal Service monies may not be spent for broadband. Our legislation will immediately allow carriers to use Universal Service support for broadband deployment. It also mandates carriers receiving Universal Service monies provide broadband throughout their service territories within five years of the bill becoming law as a condition of continuing to receive Universal Service support.

Broadband speeds: The plan recommends we set a high goal for future broadband speeds.

Today, typical home broadband service is between three and five megabits per second. In countries like South Korea and Japan, data rates for the typical subscriber are often between 50 and 100 megabits per second. The plan appropriately sets a goal during the coming decade of delivering speeds of at least 100 megabits per second to 100 million homes. The higher broadband speeds will bring full realization of the benefits of data intensive applications such as teleconferencing, telemedicine and distance learning that involves full-motion video.

Public safety: The National Broadband Plan’s proposal to auction to commercial bidders the D Block of the 700 MHZ spectrum without onerous conditions is commendable.

The proceeds from the auction should be applied to helping first responders build out a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband network on spectrum Congress previously allocated to public safety, combined with roaming and access rights elsewhere in the 700 MHz band. First responders nationwide will also need financial assistance from Congress in obtaining the equipment they need for truly interoperable communications capability.

It is essential that when they converge from different localities at the scene of a disaster, fire, police and rescue be able to communicate with one another. 

I am working with my colleagues on a bipartisan basis on the legislation that will be needed to ensure financing for the network build-out for public safety.

Identifying spectrum for commercial use: The plan proposes to identify 500 MHz of spectrum over 10 years to be used for commercial wireless services.

It also suggests the commission work with television broadcasters to identify spectrum they hold that could be repurposed for commercial wireless use on a consensual basis. Broadcasters who voluntarily surrender spectrum would receive compensation in exchange.

Last month, the House, by an overwhelming margin of 394-18, passed a bipartisan measure originated by our subcommittee  that directed the FCC and the NTIA to conduct a comprehensive inventory of the entire spectrum that could be used for commercial purposes. When completed, the inventory will offer a clear path for making available adequate wireless spectrum to meet our rapidly rising spectrum needs.

Under this approach we will learn where we are, understand how current spectrum is used and identify spectrum that is, perhaps, underutilized that could be reallocated or submitted to spectrum sharing. It would not be an appropriate step to require that broadcasters involuntarily surrender any of the spectrum they hold.

Competition for set-top boxes: The plan highlights the need for a direct-to-consumer market for television navigation devices such as set-top boxes and the benefits that devices with both TV inputs and Internet access can bring to our effort to expand broadband adoption.

The FCC has published a Notice of Inquiry as a first step in assuring that by the end of 2012 all cable and satellite TV providers include with their services a simple gateway device that converts the cable or satellite company’s TV signals into a common output that could be processed by whatever set-top box the viewer might own. That step will lead to the availability of set-top boxes from a variety of manufacturers, and innovation will be unleashed in making boxes with various functions available at various prices. Consumers could then purchase a single set-top box that would work with any cable or satellite service.

The gateway device will at long last bring to fruition Congress’s goal first set forth in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to create a competitive market for set-top boxes.

The National Broadband Plan challenges Congress and the FCC to ensure all Americans have access to affordable, high-quality broadband at meaningful speeds. Achieving these goals will prove challenging and require both time and patience. I look forward to that challenge and to the work ahead.

Boucher is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.