FCC's broadband plan critiqued as overly broad, unfeasible

Some analysts wonder whether Congress will even deal with the issue

The National Broadband Plan that will be submitted to Congress March 17 already appears be impossibly broad and technologically difficult to roll out, based on what's known about the proposal so far, several analysts said Tuesday.

In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan is so far-reaching that Congress is unlikely to do much with it, the analysts said, citing Congress' difficulty in tackling such massive efforts.

"Congress is not going to spend any time with this plan, because it won't get any of the elected officials re-elected, so they'll just get a five-minute overview from their staffs and pass over it," said analyst and consultant Andrew Seybold, who is writing his own national plan to address the expansion of broadband services to urban and rural areas.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said that whatever Congress gets from the FCC needs to be "broken into stages rather than being put into a big omnibus bill, because, frankly, Congress can't get a big omnibus bill right. You are not just talking about technology here; you are talking about politics."

Not all of the FCC's proposals have yet been revealed. But FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has been talking about various initiatives and he laid out major proposals for mobile broadband a week ago in a speech before the New American Foundation. The FCC has also discussed various facets of its proposal, including everything from Net neutrality reforms to efforts to erase the digital divide , improve energy and health care efficiency and even finally solve a nagging problem with radio interoperability for first responders.

In his mobile broadband vision, Genachowski called for freeing up 500MHz of wireless spectrum over the next decade by utilizing unused spectrum from TV broadcasters who voluntarily trade it for a share of profits when the spectrum is sold.

The National Association of Broadcasters was cool to Genachowski's idea. "We look forward to working with policymakers to help expand the rollout of broadband without threatening the future of free and location television, mindful of the fact that local TV stations just returned more than a quarter of our spectrum following our transition to digital," the NAB statement said.

Gold said "good luck" to the FCC in finding TV broadcasters willing to offer up unused spectrum for broadband. Another analyst, Will Stofega at IDC, saw it differently: "If there's a good buck to be made, I wouldn't doubt some will come forward."

The need for more spectrum to support exploding data demands is widely accepted, although at least one idea from Genachowski for using scarce spectrum more efficiently came under fire as being too futuristic.

His idea, also mentioned in the New America Foundation speech, envisions computer databases that can dynamically enable or revoke access to spectrum in particular times and places. While Genachowski didn't name the technology, Seybold said he was likely talking about a futuristic concept called "cognitive radio" which uses servers and client devices to search for an available spectrum channel to transmit and receive data.

For example, a TV station might say its licensed spectrum is available in a specific city between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., while another station would offer spectrum space from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. A database could then the radios inside cell phones or other devices to connect to a specific channel at a specific time.

"Technically, cognitive radio sounds really cool and would really help with spectrum needs," Seybold said, noting that companies like Spectrum Bridge Inc. are innovating in the field. "It's really interesting and has a lot of merit in the future, but we're not nearly ready for that. It will take a generation or more to get there...."

Gold said that users would also need devices that can access the various channels easily. "The database would have to be kept up to date. And frequency hopping on radios is not so easy -- and that adds cost," he said.

Stofega said spectrum constraints will be difficult to overcome, even if the FCC can get TV broadcasters to relinquish unused spectrum. "Even though Genachowski wants to spike a lot of innovation with compression technologies and squeezing out more spectrum, you can't keep making up spectrum," he said.

Radio experts at companies such as Qualcomm Inc. have talked in recent years about the Shannon Bound, a theorem popularized by electronic engineer Claude Shannon in the 1940s that establishes a boundary on the maximum amount of error-free digital data that can be transmitted within a specified bandwidth, Stofega said. "The point is that you can spend more money innovating and get less in terms of efficiency, and people are starting to see the end of what's possible."

Seybold said the upcoming National Broadband Plan needs to focus on only a few top priorities instead of being so broad. One priority, he said, should be faster Internet connections to rural areas. "Giving 100 Mbit/sec connections to Google customers is irrelevant," he said, referring to Google's plans to test fiber optic connections with ultra-fast speeds. "Why are we talking about 100 Mbit/sec service to 100 million people when some people would kill for 700 Kbit/sec?"

Seybold wants five tiers of service for Internet speeds available to all Americans, with those currently without Internet connections to get at least the lowest tier of service, ranging from 500 Kbit/sec to 1 Mbit/sec. The top tier would be for 50 Mbit/sec and greater connections.

Because no carrier is going to bear the cost of rural connections everywhere, Seybold suggested that the FCC urge Congress to take proceeds from any auction of unused TV spectrum and apply it toward rural broadband construction. Currently, the FCC's spectrum money must go toward retiring the national debt. Seybold noted that $50 billion raised from a TV spectrum auction would only pay off the amount of national debt incurred in two weeks. "Let's forget paying off the national debt with the auctions," he said.

Seybold said any focus on universal broadband access needs to be on rural areas. Some urban areas, while underserved, do not qualify for federal subsidies since there are at least 10 private ISPs nationwide who are attacking the urban digital divide with affordable plans.

Seybold and other analysts said that many of the broadband issues the FCC has addressed might not require congressional action, although one area in need of legislation stands out. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration oversees much of the nation's electromagnetic spectrum -- even more than the FCC does, Seybold noted.

The FCC, an independent commission, would need Congress to tell the NTIA to reallocate some spectrum, he explained.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld . Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed@matthamblen or subscribe to . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

Read more about broadband in Computerworld's Broadband Knowledge Center.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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