FCC wants faster Internet for government buildings

Plan lays out immediate and long-term government and industry goals to expand affordable access to high-speed Internet connections.

Since this story appeared, the FCC has released the broadband strategy it is presenting to Congress.

The Federal Communications Commission will deliver a broadband strategy to Congress on Tuesday that identifies high-speed Internet access as the “great challenge of the early 21st century” and calls on government to reform policies and laws to encourage expansion and improvement of the commercial broadband infrastructure.

The plan calls for government buildings, hospitals, schools and other "anchor institutions" to have access speeds of at least 1 gigabit/sec by 2020. Overall, the plan would increase Internet speeds to 25 times the current average, according to the New York Times.

Despite the rapid growth of the Internet and of broadband access in this country over the last decade — from about 8 million people with access in their homes in 2000 to nearly 200 million in 2009 — the United Sates still lags much of the developed world in adoption and cannot take full advantage of innovations such as electronic health information, remote learning and electronic delivery of government services, according to the plan. Many people who have access to broadband have not subscribed.

“Policymakers, including the FCC, have a broad set of tools to protect and encourage competition in the markets that make up the broadband ecosystem,” the commission said in a summary of the plan released Monday. The plan includes recommendations for the executive branch and Congress as well as the FCC.

If adopted, most, if not all, of the plan's recommendations could be paid for by anticipated proceeds of future wireless spectrum auctions, the plan states.

Universal broadband Internet access has been designated as a driver for the nation’s economic recovery, and Congress in the Reinvestment and Recovery Act last year mandated that the FCC develop a national plan for ensuring access to broadband capability for all Americans, providing a detailed strategy for ensuring the affordability and adoption of broadband access and maximizing its utilization. FCC issued a notice of inquiry in April 2009 seeking input on the development of the plan, which originally was due in February. Chairman Julius Genachowski last month requested a one-month extension.

The plan, entitled “Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan,” will be in perpetual beta form. “Like the Internet itself, the plan will always be changing,” the summary states.

The plan identifies gaps in the availability and adoption of high-speed networking. Nearly 100 million households currently are not using broadband and 14 million Americans can't get broadband if they want it.  Use and availability of broadband is more restricted for some populations than others. Only 42 percent of people with disabilities use broadband at home and as few as 5 percent of people living on Indian tribal lands have access.

The plan sets out a series of goals and recommendations for the next decade. It identifies four ways in which government can influence what the FCC calls the “broadband ecosystem,” which includes networks, devices, content and applications:

  • Design policies to ensure robust competition and spur commercial innovation and investment.
  • Ensure efficient allocation and management of those assets controlled by federal, state and local government, such as radio spectrum and rights of way, to encourage network upgrades and competition.
  • Reform current universal service mechanisms to support broadband deployment in high-cost areas and ensure affordability.
  • Reform laws, policies, standards and incentives to maximize benefits in public education, health care and government services and operations.

The plan says that a shortage of radio spectrum is one of the challenges to increased innovation in wireless and mobile Internet access. “Currently, the FCC has only 50 megahertz  in inventory, just a fraction of the amount that will be necessary to match growing demand,” the summary states. It recommends that an additional 500 MHz be made available within 10 years, 300 MHz of it available in the next five years.

The plan calls for shifting $15.5 billion over the next 10 years from the existing Universal Service Fund to a new Connect America Fund to ensure affordable connections with actual download speeds of at least 4 megabits/sec. Another $4.6 billion per year of legacy Universal Service Fund costs aimed primarily at voice services also would be moved over time to the new fund. The majority of the recommendations do not require new funding, and revenue from auctioning an additional 500 MHz of public spectrum could make the overall plan revenue neutral, if not positive, the summary states.

The plan also sets out long-term national goals to serve as a compass over the next decade:

  • Provide affordable access for at least 100 million homes to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits/sec and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits/sec, with universal access to robust broadband.
  • Lead in mobile innovation with the world’s fastest wireless networks.
  • Establish a nationwide wireless broadband public safety network.
  • Provide the ability to track and manage real-time energy consumption online.