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FCC To Launch Broadband Plan Inquiry April 8

Following two public meetings dealing entirely with the DTV transition, the FCC will turn its attention at its April meeting to its other huge priority, the broadband build-out.

That is according to Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps, who told a packed room at the Commerce Department Tuesday that the commission's next meeting (April 8) will feature a wide-ranging request for information and input as the FCC kicks off the process of drafting a comprehensive broadband strategy for getting Internet to every citizen.

Copps made that announcement at a joint meeting of the FCC, Commerce's National Telecommunications & Information Administration, and the USDA, which together are overseeing both the administration of $7.2 billion in economic stimulus funds for the rollout of broadband to un-served and underserved areas, and will have to come up with a grand broadband rollout plan within the year. Both the money and the mandate derive from the just-passed economic stimulus bill.

Copps pointed out that he had been pushing for such a national rollout strategy from the FCC for years, but said that instead, under previous chairmen, the commission's answer to broadband deployment had always been, essentially, "Don't worry. Be happy. Everything is great." It wasn't he said, pointing out that the latest report from the International Telecommunications Union had the U.S. a "dismal" 17th in the world.

Too many have paid too much for service that is too slow, he said, which has cost the economy billions. But he also said that years of broadband drift and digital divides was finally coming to an end.

Elsewhere on the comprehensive broadband strategy front, the FCC Tuesday issued a request for comment on the implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill, which instructed the FCC to develop, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, a comprehensive rural broadband strategy.

That effort now dovetails with the broader broadband mandate, also to be undertaken with the help of the Agriculture department, which has a number of ongoing telecommunications programs. Communications is key to farm communities that need to monitor markets and weather.

"We expect that the rural broadband strategy developed in this docket will inform our effort to develop a comprehensive national broadband plan pursuant to the Recovery Act," the FCC said in issuing the notice.

Comments are due by March 25. The shortened comment period--it is usually 30 days--has become something of a new modus operandi for the FCC under Chairman Copps as it rushes to meet new DTV deadlines imposed by Congress. In this case, the abbreviated comment period is because it has to deliver the plan to the USDA by May 22 to fulfill an almost year-old mandate that Copps said should have been done "months ago."