FCC set to take first steps toward national broadband plan

Agency will next week lay out rulemaking to fund $15.5 billion for broadband deployment over the next 10 years

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will take the first major steps toward implementing its national broadband plan next Wednesday, when it is scheduled to launch a rulemaking proceeding that would create a new fund for broadband deployment.

The FCC is expected to vote on a notice of inquiry and a notice of proposed rulemaking that would transition the Universal Service Fund (USF), which now subsidizes traditional telephone service in rural and other expensive-to-serve areas, to broadband deployment in those same areas.

Under the FCC's national broadband plan, released last month, the agency would pump $15.5 billion into broadband deployment over the next 10 years by redirecting money from the USF's $4.6 billion-a-year high-cost fund.

The plan to transition USF, funded through a tax on long-distance telephone service, to broadband has won widespread praise from within the telecom industry, with even many small rural carriers saying the fund's focus needs to be on broadband. But some telecom law experts have questioned whether the FCC has the authority to make that switch after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out an FCC order prohibiting Comcast from throttling peer-to-peer traffic on its network.

Some Republicans at a U.S. Senate hearing this week also questioned if the FCC needed to spend billions on new broadband deployment when an estimated 95 percent of U.S. homes have broadband service available. Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, called the broadband plan "thought provoking," but questioned whether large parts of it were needed during a hearing Wednesday.

"The plan begins by saying the government should play a limited role in the broadband ecosystem, but then it follows up with dozens and dozens of recommendations to do exactly the opposite," he said. "As I learn more about the national broadband plan, I see a lot more federal spending, a lot more FCC regulation and a lot more government involvement in broadband."

Ensign said he was concerned about "billions" in spending on broadband subsidies. The broadband industry has been successful largely without government involvement, he said.

Other senators praised the plan, and Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said the plan doesn't go far enough to bring broadband to rural areas.

The number of people who don't have broadband in the U.S. is unacceptable, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told senators.

"Altogether, 93 million Americans are not connected to broadband at home, including 13 million children," he said. "And 14 million Americans do not have access to broadband where they live, even if they want it. Several years ago, not having broadband could have been thought by some to simply be an inconvenience. Now, broadband access and digital literacy are essential to participation in our economy and our democracy."

In addition to the USF reform, the FCC on Wednesday will consider a notice of inquiry on whether to establish a voluntary cybersecurity program. The broadband plan says a more secure Internet is needed to encourage more broadband adoption.

The commission will also consider a notice of inquiry looking into ways to bring more smart video devices to market. One of the commission's goals in the plan is to encourage the market for smart video devices that could be used to receive both cable programming and Internet video.

The commission on Wednesday will also consider a future notice of proposed rulemaking to encourage more use of CableCard devices that allow cable TV customers to receive signals without paying for set-top boxes. That item is included in the broadband plan as well.

Finally, the FCC will vote on a notice of inquiry that would look at the redundancy of broadband networks and their ability to withstand natural disasters, terrorist attacks, pandemics and other emergencies.

In a notice of inquiry, or NOI, the FCC asks the public to generate ideas about a topic. An NOI is often followed by a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, which the commission issues when it is considering a change to its rules or regulations. An NPRM asks members of the public whether they agree with the proposed changes.

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