Liberty on Tap since 1984
Telecommunications companies praised the intent but worried that new regulations might impede rather than encourage their progress in expanding Internet access. Industry analysts said the plan was both too ambitious and not detailed enough, and consumer advocates doubted it alone would lead to more affordable broadband service at adequate speeds.
The criticisms were largely tempered by a strong embrace of what is by far the most aggressive effort to date by regulators to encourage widespread adoption of broadband at much higher speeds than most Americans have today.
The plan, put forth by the Federal Communications Commission, also proposes to allot more wireless spectrum for mobile devices, redirect some subsidies toward broadband access, develop a nationwide network for emergency first responders and create a “digital literacy corps” to train new users.
“They should be commended for the document’s remarkable breadth,” said Craig Moffett, a telecommunications industry analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, but he added that such scope could also be a liability. The plan “sets up a hundred different battles over funding and spectrum and even set-top box design, and each on its own would represent an ambitious agenda.”
He added, “The risk is that the plan’s very scope will limit its real-world impact.”
For its part, the F.C.C. on Tuesday characterized its Congressionally mandated plan as a much-needed step for keeping the nation competitive. The policies echo a generations-old effort to provide every home with a telephone, itself once seen as a communications tool central to economic and social development.
The broadband proposal, which the agency sent to Congress on Tuesday, “is necessary to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, and harness the power of broadband to help address so many vital national issues,” the agency chairman, Julius Genachowski, said in a statement.
President Obama said the plan recalled the way “past generations of Americans met the great infrastructure challenges of the day, such as building the transcontinental railroad and the Interstate highways.”
For most Americans who already have broadband access the most important part of the 10-year plan may involve speed. The F.C.C. hopes that by 2020 at least 100 million households will have access to broadband capable of running 100 megabits a second, and for community institutions like schools and hospitals to have access at 10 times that speed.
The average at-home connection is three to four megabits a second now, speeds seen as ultimately unable to deliver increasingly rich multimedia content. But industry analysts say that the government’s ability to influence access speeds is limited.
Some aspects will take years to put into place and require Congressional action. Notably, legislators would have to allow some proceeds from the spectrum auctions to be diverted to broadcasters. The F.C.C. hopes to use that spectrum to lead to the creation of wireless Internet access, to enhance competition and keep consumer costs in check.
But some television station owners are wary of the auction plans. That is one of the little battles that seems likely to emerge involving deep-pocketed advocates, industry analysts said.
One F.C.C. commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, said in a statement that she was “very concerned” about the tradeoff. “It is unclear at this point whether the Internet can currently replace these trusted sources,” she said.
And some analysts said that even if the spectrum ultimately became available, it might create wireless access but fail to create competition for the much higher-speed Net access. Wireless access is roughly one-twentieth of the speed of the envisioned 100-megabit lines, said Dave Burstein, editor of DSL Prime, an industry newsletter.
“They talk, talk, talk about affordability, but when you look at the plan, most peoples’ prices are going to go up,” Mr. Burstein said. It typically costs $100 a month for Net access at speeds of 50 megabits to 100 megabits.
Mr. Burstein said those prices were double the cost in places like France and England and yet the plan, he added, does little to bring those down.
He also asserted that the goal of getting high-speed access to 100 million homes was already within reach. About 50 million homes have access to broadband service of 50 to 100 megabits, and the cable industry says 100 million homes will have such access within five years.
Chief among its goals, the F.C.C. wants future broadband investment to be focused on the areas where gaps in service remain. It will direct this investment in part through the Universal Service Fund, a program for telephone and Internet access, costing $8 billion annually, paid through a phone bill surcharge. Over time, the subsidies for Internet will increase and those for phone will dissipate, with the knowledge that people can make online calls.
“Some of the details are lacking, particularly on Universal Service Fund reform,” said Dan Mitchell, a vice president for the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, a group that represents rural providers and worries that the proposals to change phone carrier costs will curtail the providers’ abilities to expand infrastructure.
“Broadly, they’re stating the right things,” he added. “But the devil is always in the details.”
Jenna Wortham contributed reporting.