More details are becoming available about the National Broadband Plan that the Federal Communications Commission is set to release later this month. One thing is for certain: It may give more fuel, for financial and partisan reasons, to those who have been arguing over health care and other issues since the day President Obama took office.
Among the highlights of the National Plan made available last week was a proposal, reported upon in The Wall Street Journal, that the goal is to make $12 billion to $14 billion available for wireless firefighters and police. That seems to make sense: One of the biggest problems in disasters, from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina, is the almost immediate collapse of first responders' telecommunications networks. This funding, presumably, will be aimed at meeting that challenge. Whether all parties will back what seems like a federal solution remains to be seen.
The commission also plans to ask for $9 billion, bringing the new spending to as much as $25 billion, to bring broadband to those without access. The $9 billion would more than double the $7.2 billion now being distributed via the broadband stimulus. Even the commission acknowledges that this will be a tough sell in the current financial environment.
That's the future. In the present, the U.S. Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the U.S. National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) are extending the deadline for applications for the second round of funding from March 15 to March 26. The RUS also announced $254.6 million in grants for 22 projects in 18 states. The story says the RUS now has awarded $895 million of its $2.5 billion chunk of the entire broadband stimulus pie, which is $7.2 billion.
The difficulty of awarding funds in the hyper-politicized Washington environment is illustrated by this PC World story, which describes a tiff between politicians-which the story says are mostly Republicans-and the administration. The politicians are suggesting that part of the broadband stimulus funding is being awarded to projects in areas where broadband already is available. This, they say, creates government-funded competition. Administration representatives respond that the companies cited are in fact offering only limited services in the areas in question. Anything having to do with government funding is open to interpretation and argument, and it would be naive to think that the National Broadband Plan will be any different.
Things will continue to be interesting. The Washington Post reports that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said 500 MHz of wireless spectrum will be released to support the next generation of mobile devices. A looming issue, and one that may form the context of the broadband battle of the next year, is whether the FCC should reclassify Internet service providers as a hedge against the potential loss of jurisdiction over broadband technologies. This could happen if Comcast wins its appeal of a fine the commission lodged against it in a bandwidth throttling case.
There is no reason to think that the acrimony in Washington, which observers say is at an unprecedented level, will not dominate the broadband debate as it has health care. Indeed, the die seems to be cast.