The National Broadband Plan After One Year

March 18, 2011

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, released on March 17, 2010, turned a year old this week.  Although the Plan is designed around a ten-year timeframe, as PC Mag notes, you have to start somewhere.  So, just what has the FCC done, and not done, with its first of ten years?

Yesterday, the FCC followed through with the Plan’s call to move forward on data roaming by including a data roaming item on the April 7, 2011 open meeting’s tentative agenda. This follows both last week’s call by carriers and consumer groups and this week’s letter from Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) urging the FCC to address the issue of data roaming. According to the tentative agenda, the FCC will vote on a Second Report and Order adopting rules “requiring facilities-based providers of commercial mobile data services to offer data roaming arrangements to other such providers on commercially reasonable terms and conditions, subject to certain limitations.”According to the FCC’s National Broadband Plan: Year 1 Progress Report, just under 80% of its first-year agenda is completed. Out of the seventy-five items on the agenda, fifty-nine are marked as completed with sixteen left pending. In addition to the long-waited data roaming progress, some other areas in which the FCC has made at least initial steps include freeing up spectrum and the creation of broadband maps.

With the continued proliferation of bandwidth-hogging mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, the Plan recognized the impending need for additional spectrum. In doing so, it calls for freeing up 500 Mhz of spectrum, 300 Mhz of which is to be devoted to mobile broadband, over the next ten years. The first step toward achieving this goal came when the Commerce Department issued both a ten-year plan and five-year fast track plan for freeing up spectrum in response to President Obama’s June 2010 Presidential Memorandum directing it to develop plans to free up spectrum within the ten-year timeframe. Additionally, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have introduced the bi-partisan Reforming Airwaves by Developing Incentives and Opportunistic Sharing (RADIOS) Act which would give the FCC the authority sought by Chairman Julius Genachowski to conduct incentive auctions. The theory behind incentive auctions is that they would incentivize broadcasters to voluntarily return unused spectrum to the FCC by allowing them to receive a share of the proceeds received from the auctioning of that spectrum to wireless broadband providers.

The Plan also called for the inventory and creation of a map reflecting where broadband service is available and certain information about the service offerings. On February 17, 2011, the Commerce Department launched an online map and database at that allows visitors to run a search combing through over 25 million records. Users can either view a map reflecting broadband coverage by technology or run a search using their address to obtain information such as whether broadband service is offered at their residence, what technology or technologies are used to offer available services, the available services’ advertised speeds, and the names of service providers.

While these initial steps by the FCC indicate progress, there is still a long way to go. It may be hard to determine just how successful this first year was as the Plan reflects a ten-year timeframe to improve broadband across the United States. While these initial steps are important moves toward that goal, some may be rightfully concerned that they are just that – initial steps. Only time can tell whether some of these “initial steps” will turn into a full stride toward a better-connected America.

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