I Read the National Broadband Plan So That You Don't Have To.

In its 360-page National Broadband Plan [PDF], set to be handed over to Congress today, the FCC was kind enough to provide a Cliff Notes version of the document in the form of one literary footnote at the text's beginning:

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Welsh rebel Glendower tells his co-conspirator Hotspur: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur responds, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?”

"Will they come when you do call for them?" is another way of saying that all the good policy proposals in the world don't mean all that much if there's not a good strategy behind bringing them into being. Is this long-awaited document going to call AT&T, Verizon, and wireless-ISPs-of-the-future into action, and actually provide a strategy for bringing more and better broadband choices to Americans? I registered my initial skepticism yesterday. If you'll bear with me, let's take a deeper look at the ideas contained within the actual plan.

For starters, the National Broadband Plan includes a proposal to require ISPs to do a better job disclosing how fast and stable a hook-up they're promising. The plan recommends that the FCC invest more in broadband data collection. There's also a proposal to have the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) develop a flexible standard of what "broadband" even means. Those are basic, straightforward proposals that should, in a sane world, be the starting point for the broadband conversation.

Other, more creative proposals include repurposing the Universal Service Fund charge on our phones to apply to broadband, hooking up Defense Department installations with high-speed broadband to (somewhat cleverly) push broadband further into the realm of a national-security necessity. There's talk of freeing more of the wireless spectrum for unlicensed innovation. There's a slightly odd bit about putting the federal government in the position of spearheading a push for national online ID management. Then there are proposals to create special funds to increase coverage: one for 3G networks, and a "Connect America" fund to make the math work in places where there are no or few broadband choices.

Something like "Connect America" could be promising, but it would have to be a lot more robustly structured than it seems to be to actually counter the current broadband regime. Telecom companies provide services where they think it makes financial sense for them to do so. The hope of many advocates was that the FCC would challenge that dynamic with this proposal. But to simply advocate the creation of a special fund for problem cases doesn't go nearly far enough. To pay for the National Broadband Plan's collection of proposals, the FCC says that an auction of some 500 MHz of wireless spectrum reclaimed from broadcasters will cover all of the proposed costs -- which seems a little crazy, when you consider that we have no idea which of the plan's proposals would be accepted by the FCC, or, where necessary, seized upon by Congress.

To be fair, the FCC had a tough job here. America is big, and where we're not spread out, we live in old cities. Any "national" plan has to contend with a mix of federal, state, and local authorities, not to mention the tremendous economic and political power of the telecom industry in this country.

But there are mere hints in the plan at the sort of philosophical overhaul of the national broadband landscape that some were hoping for. We could have been looking at New Deal big: the Rural Electrification Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority
-- schemes that rejected the old way of doing business and made use of the government's might to change the economics of how Americans get what they need to survive, innovate, and thrive.
The plan proposes that the FCC establish a standardized regime for the leasing of municipal utility poles to wireless providers. That's a start. A very small start. There's also a plan to create a Digital Literacy Corps -- sort of a Civilian Conservation Corps aimed at teaching people how to use (and why they need) broadband.

So that, more or less, is what's in the National Broadband Plan as written. I'm beginning to think that maybe eight months wasn't long enough for those within the FCC to come up with a game-changing broadband strategy.

I'm also beginning to wonder whether the FCC's tactic of holding countless public workshops and meetings was the best way of going about this. "To an extraordinary extent ... the author of this plan is America itself," the National Broadband Plan reads. Once the FCC understood what America wanted, it probably should have spent more time figuring out a strategy for actually providing it.

--Nancy Scola

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