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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

FCC's National Broadband Plan Raises Devisive Issues

USA Today

The Federal Communications Commission kicked off a series of potentially bitter debates about how to make high-speed Internet service faster and more popular with the official release Tuesday of its long-awaited National Broadband Plan.

The Senate Commerce Committee scheduled a hearing next Tuesday to explore the FCC's recommendations, which Congress requested last year. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will follow with its own hearing March 25.

The report also will result in "dozens of new proceedings at the FCC," says communications lawyer J.G. Harrington of law firm Dow Lohnes. "The plan is an outline on ways they'd like to go — not a decision."

The issues don't split neatly along partisan lines. Still, the plan could run into opposition from "some folks who don't want to see the president get a victory," says lawyer Jay Lefkowitz of law firm Kirkland & Ellis, who was deputy director of domestic policy for former president George W. Bush.

FCC commissioners identified some potential problems among the many proposals to connect 100 million people to broadband at home.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn criticized the recommendation to coax, and possibly force, television broadcasters to give up some airwave spectrum. The plan aims to increase broadband competition by boosting the amount of spectrum for wireless Internet services to 500 MHz from 50 MHz.

She said that "it is certainly possible, if not likely" that the few minority-owned stations likely would be among the first to sell their spectrum. She says she would find a policy that further diminished that number to be "untenable."

Others anticipate a wide-ranging debate about broadcasters' role in an Internet-centric society. The FCC would have to approve specific changes involving the use of the broadcast spectrum.

"It's not the most efficient thing to have everyone watch the Super Bowl on broadband," says media industry consultant Tom Wolzien.

Commissioner Robert McDowell also questioned another provision that would enable cable and satellite customers to ditch their company-supplied set-top box. The FCC has long wanted consumer electronics companies to sell DVRs, video game players and other devices that could tap all TV and Internet services.

"I caution the commission to tread gingerly," McDowell said. "Technological mandates by the government almost never result in robust innovation."