Congress Proposes Broadband Plan 2.0

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(Image credit: Tim Robberts/Getty Images)

A bipartisan and bicameral group of legislators has introduced a bill that would create what amounts to a National Broadband Plan 2.0.

The FCC released a National Broadband Plan under then-chairman Julius Genachowski more than a decade ago.

The Proper Leadership to Align Networks (PLAN) for Broadband Act would require the President to come up with a national strategy "to close the digital divide" and a plan to implement that strategy.

The legislation stems from a Government Accountability Office report that concluded broadband efforts were "fragmented and overlapping" and recommended the creation of a broadband strategy.

The White House has not decided whether such a plan is needed or not. It has been putting tens of billions of dollars into broadband access subsidies, including pandemic-driven healthcare and distance education dollars as well as some $65 billion in infrastructure money. Some of that money is being overseen by the FCC, but most of it by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, with much of that money going to the states for them to dole out as they see fit.

The Department of Agriculture also has broadband subsidy money for connected agriculture and other rural service.

The 2010 FCC plan notwithstanding, GAO said in the report that there are some statutory limitations on aligning the current “mosaic” of programs, including differing definitions of eligible areas and broadband speeds.

In 2020 Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called for an update of that 2010 plan and Blair Levin, the architect of the plan under Genachowski, agreed, saying it was long overdue.

While the NTIA in 2018 led an interagency group that reviewed those different definitions, it did not identify which statutes limited how the programs could be aligned or recommend any changes.

The GAO said change is necessary. “Without legislative proposals for Congress to consider, agencies may continue to face limitations in aligning programs to close the digital divide,” GAO concluded.

GAO's conclusions were based on its own analysis combined with interviews with stakeholders including ISPs and officials.

The legislators obviously are on the same page.

Introducing the bill were Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate
Commerce Committee; Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chair of the Communications Subcommittee; and Reps. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Wicker suggested a plan was needed to prevent the programs from being "mismanaged" and not coordinated, while Luján, looking at a half-full glass, suggested it was needed to improve the coordination between federal agencies.

The FCC and NTIA this week updated a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on coordinating spectrum policies, which is meant to help speed the freeing-up of spectrum for wireless broadband, among other things. 

"I am pleased that these Senate and House leaders have introduced this bill, which will require a national strategy as well as an implementation plan," said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. "It is critical that Congress move quickly to pass this legislation, and I would encourage all federal agencies to administer their broadband programs in a manner consistent with the smart policies included in this bill.” ■

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.