The FCC’s Best-Laid Plans

Implementing the commission’s National Broadband Plan raises more questions than answers

The FCC unveiled its longawaited National Broadband Plan last week, prompting one big operative question: What now?

The plan's “ta-daaa!” factor had already died the death of a thousand working recommendation previews over the previous several weeks. With no action items to get the lobbyist blogosphere humming with dire warnings—and given how tough it is to lobby against making kids’ backpacks lighter (Kindles instead of 25 pounds of textbooks) or saving billions on health care—the sky-is-falling response was held to a minimum. In fact, the overwhelming reaction from industry and activist groups alike was at least modest applause for the effort and pledges to work together on solutions.

The next step for the FCC will be to start proposing rules to implement the plan; these will likely come monthly and far into the future. This also means it will be months before any movement occurs. Those rules require comments and reply comments, and—in this FCC—workshops and public hearings and blogging and crowd sourcing. “We expect a steady stream of rulemakings will flow directly from the proposals in the plan, possibly backed up by legislation enhancing the commission’s auction authority,” says Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation, which backs such FCC activism.

Since this was a report to Congress, both houses must weigh in as well, and the relevant House and Senate committees were not letting any grass grow under their feet. The first two hearings are scheduled for March 23 in both the House and Senate. Broadcasting fan Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who has warned against forcing broadcasters off their spectrum—the FCC plan is billed as voluntary in that regard— said last week that the commission should not “leap haphazardly into implementation of the plan.”

The FCC says it can handle more than half of the recommendations in the plan on its own authority. The majority of the remainder are directions to various government agencies and suggested action items for Congress.

For broadcasters, the plan requires trying to figure out how quickly—and how “voluntarily”—the government plans to take back 120 megahertz of its spectrum (broadcasters occupy a little north of 290 MHz, having already given back 108 MHzplus in the DTV transition). The FCC will need that spectrum, since it anticipates paying for some of the plan’s recommendations through billions in auction proceeds. For cable operators, just how much the government may subsidize competition to its existing services or provide regulatory disincentives to investment will be the devils in the details.

Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman thinks the wireless companies will be the big winners down the road “if the commission succeeds in diverting substantial amounts of spectrum to broadband,” and cable carriers will benefit from the adoption side if more folks can be sold on the value of broadband service.