Happy Birthday, National Broadband Plan!

Happy Birthday, National Broadband Plan

We’re taking a step back today from our usual focus on the past seven days to look at the progress made on implementation of the National Broadband Plan (NBP) over the last two years.

March 16 marks the 2nd anniversary of the release of the NBP, a multi-year strategy for increasing broadband deployment, adoption and meaningful use throughout the country. Since the release, the Benton Foundation has been tracking the implementation of the plan and its over 200 recommendations.

Joan Engebretson interviewed NBP architect Blair Levin recently. He highlighted the Plan’s recommendation to conduct a voluntary incentive auction of broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband use. Just last month, as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, Congress gave the Federal Communications Commission the authority to conduct incentive auctions. “We spent $20 million on the plan and Congress [says] the incentive auction is worth $22 billion,” said Levin. “That’s a thousand-to-one return on investment and it’s better than Goldman will do on the Facebook IPO.”

Levin also sees strong potential in the Unified Community Anchor Network -- a project to link high-speed academic and research networks nationwide that received broadband stimulus funding and which Levin said also had its genesis in the National Broadband Plan (see http://benton.org/node/34193).

Levin conceded a couple of recommendations that could, in hindsight, have been better. First, he notes that the LightSquared saga has demonstrated that reclaiming spectrum for mobile broadband will be more difficult than anticipated. “It’s too difficult to dislodge incumbents from existing spectrum,” said Levin. “I’m not saying we should give up [on that idea], but I am saying don’t put all your eggs in that basket.” Instead, he encouraged policymakers to think about “How do you allow sharing of spectrum more effectively?”

Second, he believes now that the NBP could have taken a tougher stance on broadband data usage caps. “We didn’t believe government policy should oppose caps,” Levin said. If caps become standard process, however, Levin said there are certain uses that shouldn’t be subject to caps. “You don’t want a poor kid to not be able to do his homework assignment to watch last night’s presidential webcast,” said Levin. Another example, he said, might be an emergency medical service that sends an accident victim’s medical information when the accident is reported, perhaps using an On Star-style offering. “Instead of saying, ‘We have nothing to do with it,’ I wish the FCC would say ‘When it comes to health, education and public safety, make sure data caps [don’t apply],’” said Levin.

The bottom line for Levin is that the Plan has been agenda-setting.

At the Benton Foundation, we’ve been most interested in how the recommendations concerning the Universal Service Fund are implemented. Last year at this time, we reported that 35 recommendations -- approximately 16% of the Plan's suggestions -- address this issue. As of last year, five of these recommendations (14%) had been completed. Now, nearly half (16) of the USF-related recommendations have been completed, while another 14 have seen some action on them.

Most notably, the FCC in October 2011, adopted comprehensive reform of its Universal Service Fund and intercarrier compensation systems. These reforms create a new Connect America Fund with an annual budget of no more than $4.5 billion, which will extend broadband infrastructure to the millions of Americans who currently have no access to broadband.

And, on January 31, 2012, the FCC approved a comprehensive overhaul of its Lifeline program which provides discounted telecommunications services for low-income households. That reform included:

  • adopting an express goal for the program of ensuring availability of broadband for all lowincome Americans;
  • allowing Lifeline support for bundled services plans combining voice and broadband;
  • establishing a Broadband Adoption Pilot Program using up to $25 million in savings from other reforms to test and determine how Lifeline can best be used to increase broadband adoption
  • among Lifeline-eligible consumers; and
  • proposing – in a new proceeding -- to increase digital literacy training at libraries and schools.

[Editor’s note: The Benton Foundation advocated for many of these reforms.]

The FCC has led the charge on National Broadband Plan implementation and its efforts should be celebrated on day 731 since the Plan’s release. Over half (55%) of the NBP recommendations included FCC action. Of those 121 recommendations, the FCC has completed work on 27 (22%) and is working on another 77 (64%). But there is still much work to be done. Benton will continue to track progress on reaching the Plan’s many goals.

Two items of note on next week’s agenda -- the House Committee on Appropriations looks at the FCC’s budget and the FCC holds its monthly open meeting on March 21. ‘Til then, we’ll see you in the Headlines.