More of a National Broadband To-Do List, Really.

As Monica mentioned below, tomorrow was slated to be the day that the Federal Communications Commission would, finally, put out some version of a National Broadband Plan, the first of its kind for the United States. I happened to get a copy at a pen-and-pad briefing at the FCC this morning, and we were told that the midnight embargo had already been broken, so bombs away.

At first read, this 350-page-plus planning document is probably going to disappoint many people. The critical question of how the FCC and/or Congress is going to encourage provider competition was largely punted on. As we already knew, the FCC is pushing forward with a wireless auction that would reward licensees for selling back the slices of the national airwaves they no longer need. But when it comes to wireline services -- fiber in the ground, for example -- this strategy doesn't have all that much to offer. There's a bit in there about making use of federal "conduits, poles and rights-of-way" to make the math work on connecting hard to wire places. That's good, but the bad part is that that represents the beginning and end of creative thinking from the FCC about how to reverse the U.S.' slow descent into telecom mediocrity. In fact, one of the senior FCC folks at the briefing actually framed the plan's approach to broadband competition as a continuation of U.S. telecom practice, a practice that has largely been "the market shall provide." You might have noticed it hasn't thus far. That was kinda why we needed a new plan.

The absence of creative thinking in this new plan is particularly worrisome because the small crew within the FCC that produced it had the chance to stir passions about what our broadband future might look like. The National Broadband Plan isn't a set of regulations. It's not a piece of legislation. It was meant to be an aspirational plan, but it's not that aspirational. Blair Levin, the seemingly autonomous point-person appointed by Chairman Genachowski, talks about the FCC like Alaskans talk about the United States. It's not clear if recommendations in the plan made to the FCC will actually be regulations made by the FCC. In other words, is the FCC prepared to actually enact the policies, like form new public-private partnerships or re-purpose the Universal Service Fund from telephones to broadband? I was told the FCC commissioners -- the people with the power to turn the plan into action -- had seen the report as early as a full month ago and had access to the broadband team's staff.

In a perfect world you'd have a lot more FCC commitment to the plan's specific recommendations, given that unless the commission's totally on board or Congress suddenly gets motivated, all the plans in the world aren't going to amount to much. All that said, there's some solid thinking about the basics of better broadband. I'm being extra critical, because of the enormous potential a plan like this could have. But I'll have more on more of the policy details in a bit.

--Nancy Scola

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