America Loses as FCC's Broadband Plan Shows Signs of Collapse

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 1:36 PM EDT

The fight for a cohesive national broadband plan to secure and advance Internet use has morphed into a smackdown involving the Federal Communications Commission, the Senate, and the courts. We're only in the first round, and consumers already are the big losers.

The prospects for much-needed cyber-safeguards, spectrum expansion, and emergency service allocation remain elusive. The FCC has proposed a detailed broadband plan for expanding high-speed Internet access in the U.S., but much of the debate revolves around who gets and gives access and at what price. The crusade has become a political football, which is a blow for the citizens, businesses, and organizations that rely on broadband.

The US Court of Appeals in Washington DC recently voided a 2008 FCC ruling against Comcast's efforts to throttle back BitTorrent and other spectrum hogs, raising questions about whether the agency has the authority to elicit and enforce sweeping regulatory reform.

Undeterred, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski Wednesday formally launched rulemaking and inquiries for the proposed broadband strategy. Among other things, the FCC is seeking comments about a "gateway" platform and in-home interface for all connected devices and services. Providing a universal backbone would attract wider broadband investment, competition and adoption

That same day, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked Senate legislation that would implement a key spectrum-related recommendation of the FCC's broadband proposal. The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee, requires the FCC and the Commerce Department to inventory government-controlled airwaves for possible reallocation. Although the bill's enactment would eliminate pressure on TV stations to relinquish their unused spectrum and prevent a pending wireless shortage, Coburn argues it would adversely impact the federal deficit.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D. Mich.) told a meeting of the American Cable Assoc. that a move to create the Connect America Fund to underwrite broadband expansion (also part of the FCC's grand plan) will likely be delayed until after this year's election. "The Senate is doing what it does best: nothing," Stupak said.

The FCC suffered yet another setback Wednesday when the Free Press told a Senate Subcommittee on Technology that the agency has based its plan on overly optimistic, "flawed" broadband assumptions. From the start, Blair Levin, the outgoing executive director of the FCC's broadband plan, has said he has been surprised by the dearth of available data about broadband connections.

For now, the FCC, eager to re-assert its questioned authority, is pondering whether to reclassify broadband as a more strictly regulated telecommunications service -- a potential switch from its lightly governed status as an information service. Such a reclassification would allow the FCC to unilaterally implement some of the broadband reform it seeks including open Internet access. Opponents warn such a move would have "nuclear" legal, technical and economic ramifications.
The FCC seeks expeditious review and approval of its broadband plan before it has to make other major media rulings, such as granting conditional approval of the proposed Comcast-NBC Universal merger. Such piecemeal broadband policy-making, which also could be challenged in court, often becomes regulation-by-default. The Comcast-NBCU merger alone raises numerous issues, including the dominant cable operator's ability to provide equitable access to NBCU content rivals.

The battering of a national broadband plan by Washington politics has compromised America's competitiveness. The U.S. is rapidly falling behind other world powers in managing and nurturing the Internet as a vital piece of infrastructure.

  • Diane Mermigas

    Diane Mermigas has been a contributing editor and columnist at Mediapost, The Hollywood Reporter and Crain Communications as well as writing for such sites as Seeking Alpha, TrueSlant and BNET. In addition to speaking and television appearances, Diane consults with companies in digital transition, and is completing a book on the future of media.