FCC's Broadband Plan: Show Me Action, Not Words

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission released its long-awaited National Broadband Plan, which has become shorthand for a comprehensive set of new policies the agency plans to promote. The plan encompasses everything from digitizing medical records to telework, distance education, a nationwide emergency-responders communications network and, perhaps most importantly, a drive to spur competition in the broadband ISP sector, increase access and median data-transfer speeds nationwide, and lower prices in the process (making us, one day, perhaps on par with more advanced European and Asian countries). For a very superficial overview of the plan’s high points, check here.
The telecom pundits are all a-twitter about this plan, and its relative wonderfulness. But it behooves breaking down some of the basics:
1. The main fulcrum to actuate change in broadband penetration and access is the proposal to reform the Universal Service Fund (originally set up to stimulate the expansion of telephony to rural areas) to cover broadband internet access. Telcos (both wired and wireless, including cable companies) will watch this warily, and may resist upping the USF fee (already a part of your bill) and, in the end, will likely pass along any increase to you, the consumer.
2. The FCC would like to “reclaim” some 120 megahertz of spectrum currently allocated to television to auction for the provision of wireless broadband. Other spectrum is being eyed as well. You can bet the broadcast lobby will fight this tooth and nail, as they live under the false assumption that they own the public airwaves. This part of the plan is going to spill blood.
3. Notice many of the target-dates for the completion of many of the plan’s points take time beyond a first Obama administration. Remember when cars were supposed to be getting 50 miles per gallon by 2010? Or our carbon emissions cut in half by 2020? Priorities change as administrations do. Which leads to…
4. The most controversial elements of the plan (USF reform and spectrum reclamation) will certainly require legislative involvement and possible backlash. Right now the rhetoric is mostly positive, but these things change with time. As with something like LPFM, when corporate citizens do not get their way they simply outnumber us overwhelmingly, lobbying our representatives to quash a regulatory agency’s big ideas. Thus, the FCC’s release of this plan is more of a milestone in rhetorical intent than it is of policy momentum. Even the FCC Commissioners don’t see eye-to-eye on all parts of this plan.
Why am I so cynical? Because, more than three years ago, I wrote an award-winning paper (as a second-year doctoral student) laying out the fundamental premise that the FCC is finally getting around to recognizing: broadband must be treated as a utility, not a commodity. None of this is f*cking brain surgery, people – except for the politics involved in making it happen.
Unfortunately, given the plan’s bobs and weaves, the FCC may try to split the difference. I’ll believe change is upon us when I have more choices than the oligopoly I have now, and I’m not holding my breath.