The National Broadband Plan at Five: The Work Done and the Work Ahead

The work that has been done – and needs to be done – to implement the National Broadband Plan

Over the last five years, the Benton Foundation has been tracking the progress made on implementing the six core goals and over 200 recommendations in the National Broadband Plan. Our tracking is fueled by our daily Headlines service which is the most comprehensive, free chronicle of developments in telecommunications policy. Benton's National Broadband Plan Tracker captures the links between today's Headlines and events, bills moving through Congress, dockets at the FCC, and the week's key events.

The National Broadband Plan, you may recall, recommended that the country set the following six goals for 2020 to serve as a compass:

  • Goal #1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.
  • Goal #2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.
  • Goal #3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
  • Goal #4: Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.
  • Goal #5: To ensure the safety of the American people, every first responder should have access to a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband public safety network.
  • Goal #6: To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption.

Overall, about twenty percent of the National Broadband Plan has been completed over the last five years while action has begun on another fifty-five percent of the recommendations. Fifty-five of the recommendations – about one-quarter -- have not seen any work as of yet. [By the way, forty percent of the recommendations that have not been acted upon were recommendations made to Congress.]

At Benton, our focus has always been on what we believe to be the heart of the National Broadband Plan: the recommendations targeted at streamlining and modernizing the federal Universal Service Fund

At Benton, our focus has always been on what we believe to be the heart of the National Broadband Plan: the recommendations targeted at streamlining and modernizing the federal Universal Service Fund. For the Federal Communications Commission, there is no bigger, no better tool than the USF. When the National Broadband Plan was released, there was no task bigger before the FCC than taking programs that were traditionally focused on telephone service (or narrow-band Internet service) and refocusing them on deploying affordable broadband throughout communities.

Thirty-five recommendations -- approximately 16% of the plan's suggestions -- address USF reform.

In 2011 we reported that five of these recommendations (14%) have been completed. The FCC's E-rate Order addressed upgrading broadband connectivity to schools and libraries. The bulk of the recommendations (22 or 63%) were in full swing at the FCC. Most notably, the FCC had recently launched proceedings to: 1) modernize and streamline its universal service and intercarrier compensation policies; and 2) modernize and drive tougher accountability measures into the Lifeline/Link Up program.

In 2012, we reported that nearly half (16) of the USF-related recommendations had been completed, while another 14 had 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 created 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 low income 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.

As we noted then: “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 [plan's] 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.”

In 2014, we celebrated the National Broadband Plan’s fourth anniversary by reprinting a speech by the plan’s architect, Blair Levin and taking a closer look at one of the plan’s key strategies as articulated by Blair -- driving fiber deeper. Looking at National Broadband Map data then showed that just less than 57% of U.S. households (so roughly 78.5 million) had access to wireline broadband offering download speeds of 100Mbps or more and just more than 18% (approximately 25.4 million) have access to upload speeds of 50Mbps or more.

Far from 100Mbps, according to broadband speed tests, the median speeds in homes, institutions and businesses were:

  • Home – 6.7Mbps
  • Schools, Libraries, Community Centers – 10.0Mbps
  • Medium/Large Business – 8.9Mbps
  • Small Business – 4.4Mbps

For communities that didn't yet have access to high speed broadband, prospects that they would soon have fiber as an option were not good. On March 11, 2014 Newsweek published Telecom Giants Drag Their Feet on Broadband for the Whole Country. David Cay Johnston wrote that "instead of laying fiber cable, cable and telephone companies have invested in a massive and very successful lobbying push. They are persuading state legislatures and regulatory boards to quietly adopt new rules -- rules written by the [companies] -- to eliminate their legal obligations to provide broadband service nationwide and replace landlines with wireless." The lobbyist-proposed legislation and regulation would end the requirements to serve all customers, to resolve customer complaints fairly, to make repairs promptly and to install service soon after it is ordered. While the bills and regulatory rules proposed differ in each state, all have common themes: less or no competition, no more investment in fiber-optic networks, no authority for regulators to help distressed small businesses and consumers. David Cay Johnston concluded that these plans would leave vast areas of the country with poor service, slow telecommunications and higher bills.

So where are we as the plan turns five? Blair Levin, writing for Benton’s Digital Beat this week, admits that for each of the plan's core four strategies -- driving fiber deeper in the network; using spectrum more efficiently; getting everyone on; and using broadband to improve delivery of public goods and services -- there has been progress, problems and paths still untraveled.

Concerning the plan's #1 goal of 100Mbps access, we, as a nation, are still coming up woefully short. Earlier this year, the FCC released its latest Broadband Progress Report finding that approximately 55 million Americans lack access to fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps or higher broadband service. And the data reflect a gaping disparity between urban populations and rural and Tribal populations.

Concerning Universal Service Fund reform, the FCC has completed work on 12 of the recommendations (34%). Twenty recommendations (57%) are works in progress.

What are the big issues in 2015?

At Benton, there are two recommendations that we see turning into big policy debates in 2015.

First, the plan recommended that the FCC should broaden the universal service contribution base, revising contribution methodology rules to ensure that the Universal Service Fund remains sustainable over time. “Whichever path the FCC ultimately takes,” the plan states, “it should take steps to minimize opportunities for arbitrage as new products and services are developed and remove the need to continuously update regulation to catch up with technology and the market.”

By April 7, the FCC will receive a recommendation from the Federal-State Board on Universal Service on how to modify the universal service methodology. The recommendation is likely to address who should contribute, how contributions should be assessed, and how to make the system more transparent and fair. So these recommendations are likely to kick off further FCC proceedings on how to make USF sustainable – and fair – into the future.

The second recommendation we have an eye on concerns broadband affordability for low-income households. In the plan’s chapter on adoption and utilization, the first recommendation reads:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should expand Lifeline Assistance (Lifeline) and Link-Up America (Link-Up) to make broadband more affordable for low-income households.

The Lifeline program has traditionally made telephone service affordable, but a majority of FCC commissioners have publicly stated they’d like to examine if the program could make broadband affordable, too. That debate could heat up before the summer starts and will help decide if all students have access to broadband-enabled education resources when they go home after school, and if low income residents have Internet access even after they leave their community libraries.

As we look back on the last five years, we must congratulate and thank the FCC for its tireless work in both creating and implementing the plan. For you scoring at home, 121 of the plan’s 219 recommendations (over 55 percent of the total) were for FCC action. Of those, just two have not been started. As Charles Benton wrote five years ago, “We embark on implementing this plan so that each of us -- no matter our income, education, ethnicity or age -- have the opportunity to fully participate in our society.” That imperative is just as strong as we reflect both on the plan’s success so far and as we set the agenda for the months to come.