Nation - FCC releases national broadband plans

The FCC on March 16 released its long-awaited and, at 376 page, just plain long National Broadband Plan.

Although most political junkie/non-technorati were captivated by all things healthcare, the FCC's monumental undertaking tackled a number of issues that will impact most individuals, organizations, institutions and corporations through the next 10 to 15 years.

While recognizing that writing it is one thing and implementing it is a whole other matter, there's a good deal to be digested, both in terms of what has been proposed and who is now tasked with getting the jobs done. (The plan can be viewed online at http://download.broadband.gov/plan/national-broadband-plan.pdf.)

FCC's plan contains six areas of focus -- high speed Internet access, reallocation of spectrum in the 500 MHz range, improving digital literacy, the creation and support of a national emergency network, reform in the areas of Universal Service and reciprocal compensation, that is how carriers settle up with each other for terminating calls that originate on other networks, and healthcare communications.

High speed Internet

According to the FCC, currently, only 65 percent of Americans use high speed broadband (100 Mega bits per second).

Nearly 14 million people are without Internet access entirely, while millions of others choose not to access broadband at home, either due to the cost of access, the equipment necessary to make it of any use or simply lack of interest.

Only 42 percent of individuals with disabilities use broadband, and only the smallest of minorities of those living on Tribal lands (about 5 percent) have access at all. High speed access no longer is a luxury, but a necessity -- particularly for those seeking work who cannot search for jobs online. High speed access to the Internet is critical for government units, nonprofits and business entities as well. To remain competitive in today's market, it's as essential as a basic telephone, often more so.

Reallocation of spectrum

Spectrum in the 500 MHz range is a limited resource and, as such, it's imperative that it is used as efficiently as possible.

Much of the spectrum in the 500 MHz band currently falls under the control of broadcasters who let it lie fallow in the interest of "white space" between channels. By requesting voluntary cooperation with associated financial incentives from broadcasters in between 20 and 40 markets to surrender some of their spectrum, it is anticipated a significant amount could be reallocated between users of both licensed and unlicensed wireless devices.

That process, which will not happen overnight, will require decision-makers to weigh technology, economics and public safety. In a recent interview, FCC National Broadband Plan Director Blair Levin indicated the process will "bring market signals into the allocation of spectrum."

Improving digital literacy

The FCC's plan will encourage raising the level of broadband adoption from the current 65 percent to 90 percent. A Digital Literacy Corps has been proposed as a way to provide training and community outreach to both schools and senior citizens. Under the plan, broadband will be added to the FCC's Lifeline and Link Up programs, which provide subsidized services to those in need.

Given that 62 percent of Americans use the Internet as their primary source for information, and that 65 percent of American jobs require at least some use of the Internet, the focus on training and education is critical not only to the success of the plan itself, but to the country as a whole.

Creation of a national emergency network

The lack of connectivity between first and other emergency responders made evident during hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in addition to other significant disasters showed the great need for a nationwide, interoperable, wireless public safety network. There currently is no nationwide E911 policy or standard, let alone any other nationwide system that supports first responders in the field.

The plan's proposed Emergence Response Interoperability Center is an essential step to address first responders's concerns, as well as the millions of people whom they help during emergencies.

Universal Service

Although most people glaze over when they see the line item on a communications bill for Universal Service -- currently charged above and beyond actually usage charges at a staggering 14.1 percent for the first quarter of 2010, and jumping yet to 15.3 percent in the second quarter -- the fact is that the amount assessed and the services against which it is assessed has become increasingly convoluted. Long a topic of passionate discourse for those embedded in telecom law and policy, the proposed revisions will enable the monthly line item to be assessed more equitably since the existing telecommunications technology, and law and policy, have evolved in different directions. The revised fund, likely to be renamed, will focus first on spending its resources to deploy broadband and to support ongoing operations. The ultimate goal -- both technologically and financially -- is to enable broadband deployment to 99 percent of American households.

Reciprocal compensation

When the system of intercarrier compensation -- which providers use to "settle up" for calls originated on one company's network and terminated on another -- includes costs with each segment, the system will be reworked in order to close some loopholes and create greater efficiencies. The FCC also will work to create a separate fund to support mobile broadband and "encourage" the federal government to speed up the deployment of wired broadband by modifying pole-attachment rules, lower costs and resolve disputes among traditional telephone and cable providers.

The plan's last major prong addresses issues of ready access to health care information while creating and maintaining a strong, yet flexible, regimen for governing and maintaining individual privacy. By supporting initiatives that include ensuring health care providers's access to affordable broadband, FCC officials believe billions of dollars can be saved.

Specifically, the plan directs a revamping of the Rural Health Care Program, an upgrade of Indian Health Services' broadband network, to meet its health IT needs, the creation and ongoing support of the economic incentives for broader health IT adoption and innovation, and loosening the lock on health care data and advanced analytics, while absolutely protecting patient privacy.

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Martha Buyer is an attorney concentrating in the practice of telecommunications law. Her clients range from Fortune 500 companies to small family-owned businesses where she has provided a range of telecommunications consulting and legal services, primarily geared to support corporate end-users working with carriers and equipment providers. She can be reached at martha@marthabuyer.com.

Published: Fri, Mar 26, 2010