FCC Broadband Plan: Reactions Pour In

Comment from Washington came pouring over the electronic transom Monday as details of the FCC's national broadband plan were revealed.

Broadcasters said they would look closely at the plan, though they were pleased with the voluntary nature of any spectrum reclamation proposal, so long as it stayed voluntary, while the main cable trade group also took a wait-and see approach, saying the report contributed to a dialog that needed to continue.

The plan appeared to be going over well with some key congressmen, including Ed Markey (D-Mass.) former chair of the House Communications Subcommittee, who came up with the idea for making the plan part of the stimulus package.

"The National Broadband Plan positions our country to lead in this vital area, and I am pleased that the Commission has produced such as visionary, far-reaching plan with specific strategies and goals to help our country compete and win in the fiercely competitive global economy," said Markey in a statement.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who two weeks ago said the FCC should conduct an inventory of spectrum before deciding where to get it, seemed OK with the plan, which includes a five-year timetable for getting spectrum back from broadcasters.

"The Commission has done a superb job in meeting the challenge set forth by the Congress one year ago that a national plan to achieve universal broadband access be developed," Boucher said in a statement. "I look forward to working with FCC Chairman Genachowski to enact legislation which will carry forward the Commission's plan," he added.

Boucher also endorsed the idea of a voluntary broadcast reclamation proposal that compensated broadcasters, though he had no comment on the proposed timetable and a spokesperson had not returned a call for comment at press time.

Boucher said he supported appropriating money for an interoperable first responder communications network, another of the plan's proposals, which the FCC suggests will be necessary to supplement funds gleaned from the D block auction.

"Chairman Genachowski and the FCC are to be commended for producing this comprehensive and forward-looking report that touches on so many aspects of American society," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy & Commerce Committee.

"The Plan will be a critically important tool as Congress looks to the challenge of utilizing fully the transformative power of broadband. I look forward to exploring the recommendations in more detail and in the bipartisan manner we have traditionally addressed communications and technology issues."

The National Association of Broadcasters, which has balked at mandatory spectrum reclamation and suggested broadcasters will need their spectrum for HD and services like mobile DTV, said it would vet the plan and hoped Congress would do the same.

"We were pleased by initial indications from FCC members that any spectrum reallocation would be voluntary, and were therefore prepared to move forward in a constructive fashion on that basis," said spokesman Dennis Wharton in a statement. "However, we are concerned by reports today that suggest many aspects of the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised. Moreover, as the nation's only communications service that is free, local and ubiquitous, we would oppose any attempt to impose onerous new spectrum fees on broadcasters."

The FCC has made the fees part of the plan as an additional incentive to broadcasters who might want to give up some of their spectrum.

"Finally, we strongly support congressional efforts to conduct an inventory of all available spectrum, and believe that no reallocation plan should move forward without a complete accounting of how the airwaves are allocated, licensed and used," said Wharton.

Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts commended the effort, and many of the goals. "The plan appears to reflect the emerging consensus on a number of paramount broadband goals," he said, "most notably the need to achieve universal adoption and digital literacy [Comcast is part of the Adoption-Plus initiative to provide low-cost broadband to middle school kids]; the need to fix and redirect outdated subsidy schemes to more efficiently deliver broadband to unserved areas and to close the affordability gap for low-income families; and the need to break down policy barriers that keep broadband from serving critical national purposes such as health care, education, and employment."

Roberts said he "hoped" the plan would balance the regulatory environment with the sort of environment that is necessary for private investment in faster networks.

The wireless industry, which has been pushing the FCC to find as much spectrum as possible for all those broadband apps, sounded happy.

"CTIA: The Wireless Association and our member companies are extremely pleased that spectrum is recognized as being pivotal to the National Broadband Plan," said the company in a statement. "We appreciate the FCC's and the broadband team's focus on making 500 MHz of spectrum for broadband within 10 years, of which 300 MHz should be made available for mobile use within five years."

The commission has said it wants to auction 120 mHZ of broadcast spectrum, the most from any incumbent user, by 2013, and clear those users of the band--voluntarily--by 2015.

"Based on the executive summary, it is clear the broadband team recognized the importance of the mobile Internet to the economy and to meeting many national priorities," said CTIA. "We applaud their commitment to providing everyone equal access to the most advanced wireless communications."

"This is a roadmap to an America with the most robust, accessible broadband infrastructure in the world and the jobs that come with it, and we should settle for nothing less," said Sen. John Kerry, (D-Mass.) chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee. "It establishes a bold national goal and a date for reaching it.  It's our job to ensure that service is safe, reliable, open and accessible regardless of income, geography, or disability.  This plan, however, is not self-executing.  It will require bipartisan support and long term commitment to implement.  I will work with the Commission, my colleagues, and the public to get it done."

Consumer and public advocacy groups were generally pleased, with both the goals and the proposals in the plan. "We stand in strong support of the goals and direction laid out by this plan. We hope the FCC will move forward quickly," said Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver.

Mark Cooper, of the Consumer Federation of America, called it a moderate but important starting point. "We see today's National Broadband Plan report to Congress as a significant first step in the right direction. It strikes a good balance between what needs to be done in the long-term and what can be done in the immediate future. Given the complete absence of policies to address the digital divide and promote competition in broadband in the past decade, this is an ambitious agenda and a good starting point for responding to the challenge confronting the U.S. communications network."

Adding a note of caution was the Open Mobile Video Coalition, representing broadcasters who want to use their spectrum to compete with wireless mobile video providers. "In the public policy debate over spectrum allocation, we urge Congress and the FCC to carefully consider the essential role Mobile DTV can play as a resource for emergency alerts, as a source for vital public information, and as an ingredient in the country's broadband future," said the group in a statement.

Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns, ranking member of the House Communications Subcommittee, agreed that broadband was critical, but said the plan confirmed that the private sector was doing a good job getting broadband to folks already, and that the FCC should concentrated on the remaining 5% who were uneconomical for the private sector to serve. He also warned that the plan migh contain "stalking horses" for what he called "investment-killing ideas like net neutrality mandates or "monopoly-era" regs.

Joining those sounding alarm bells, or at least a cautionary peal, was the Maximum Service Television (MSTV), broadcasters chief spectrum lobbyist.

"Unfortunately, according to some reports today, the plan does not appear to be fully voluntary," said the group in a statement.

The plan is still pitched as voluntary, and FCC officials speaking on background Monday reiterated their belief that 120 MHZ could be reclaimed from broadcasters, who currently ocupy 294 MHZ, having already given back 108 MHz as part of the DTV transition.

The National Broadband plan could force television broadcasters to change channels and reduce service areas, perhaps stranding millions of viewers.  And "non-volunteers" might be punished with onerous spectrum fees and other indirectly coercive measures.

Therefore, MSTV will review the details of the FCC Task Force's National Broadband Plan carefully.  With the enactment of spectrum inventory legislation, we will work with the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Commerce to identify spectrum options for wireless broadband.  Television broadcasters use only about 5% of the "beachfront" spectrum sought by proponents of wireless broadband and that spectrum is already being used intensively.

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.