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Technology / TECHNOLOGY

Is the National Broadband Plan Too Slow?

photo of Josh Smith
March 16, 2011

One year after the Federal Communications Commission released its National Broadband Plan, federal officials tout the past year’s accomplishments while critics say the agency is moving too slowly and becoming distracted by the network-neutrality debate. The truth is, both sides are right to a degree.

Of the plan’s 200-plus recommendations, about 34 percent remain untouched, according to the Benton Foundation, a telecommunications public interest group. But almost 10 percent of the proposals are complete, and about 56 percent are in progress or have at least been started. And with a 10-year schedule for implementing the proposals, that puts the FCC roughly on track.

According to the agency’s own count, it has completed about 80 percent of its first-year goals, which leaves some observers unimpressed.

 

"Despite all the fanfare surrounding the National Broadband Plan, so far the FCC has delivered no more than the status quo,” said Free Press Research Director Derek Turner. “Americans are no better off now than they were last year, and the future outlook is not promising.”

The broadband plan, a blueprint aimed at taking the United States to the next level of communication and technology, has been both praised and attacked, with groups like Free Press saying the FCC’s efforts are not serious.

But many of the people who helped draft the 300-page document say it’s too soon to render judgment on how effectively the plan is being implemented.

Among the plan’s unaccomplished goals: a national public safety communications network and reform of a fund originally used to provide telephone service to rural and low-income areas.

But the FCC has started the ball rolling on several of those major goals, while others require congressional action.

And the agency has modernized a program to provide schools and libraries with Internet service; approved plans to extend broadband service to tribal lands; moved ahead with the debate over spectrum auctions; and launched a national broadband map.

Blair Levin, who oversaw production of the plan as executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative at the FCC, told National Journal Daily that there’s no one metric to measure how successful the plan has been.

“It’s not a simple answer. There are too many aspects to give it a letter grade,” said Levin, now a communications and society fellow at the Aspen Institute. He acknowledged that some areas need improvement, but he said that focusing on counting specific achievements misses the bigger picture. “The plan was extremely successful at setting the agenda. Either the ideas are being implemented or they are leading to better ideas," Levin said.

That, Levin said, is the greatest legacy of the plan so far. “Are we moving in the right direction? Absolutely, in some areas better than others, but we are moving, and the plan put broadband on the agenda,” he said.

Although the FCC’s work on net neutrality (which was not in the plan) has grabbed headlines and sparked congressional reaction, Levin said he is pleased that the FCC has focused largely on implementing the broadband plan.

In remarks to the Mobile Future Forum on Wednesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, perhaps unsurprisingly, struck much the same tone as he said his agency has been “focused like a laser” on broadband issues.

“… when this endeavor began, too many Americans didn’t know what broadband was,” Genachowski said. “Too many Americans, young and old, too many companies small and even large, didn’t understand the benefits of being connected.… So, in just one year, broadband has now become part of the vernacular. Not just a topic for us geeks at the FCC, but in the national bloodstream.” 

And another of the plan’s original writers, Mohit Kaushal, who joined Levin at an event sponsored by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Wednesday, said there will continue to be debate about how the plan is, or is not, implemented.

“There is always going to be a gap between policy and implementation because so much is open to interpretation,” Kaushal said.

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