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FCC studies goal of nationwide affordable, fast Internet

By: Leslie Cauley, USA Today

The Federal Communications Commission Wednesday begins work on a national broadband plan, with the goal of ensuring that all consumers have access to services that are fast and affordable.

The public will be able to submit comments to the FCC for 60 days, with another 30 days for reply comments. The agency will take them into consideration as it crafts the USA's first national broadband plan.

The plan, due to Congress by Feb. 17, 2010, could have a profound impact, says Ben Scott, public policy director of Free Press, a media advocacy group.

"It could be a very important document that guides the future of telecommunications regulation and the future of the Internet," he says. "Or it could be a glorified study."

The FCC often gets knocked for issuing reports that have little impact, but Scott doesn't think that will happen this time.


Why: President Obama considers broadband to be basic infrastructure, like electricity and water, and wants the FCC to do what it can to help drive adoption rates across the USA.

At the president's urging, Congress has also allocated $7.2 billion in stimulus funding to entice companies to deploy broadband.

Under President Bush, broadband was considered a luxury, and received light government attention as a result.

Paul Glenchur, a public policy analyst in Washington, D.C., says the shift in political sensibility is key. "This is part of a broader (Obama) administration commitment to extend broadband everywhere in the country, and make it affordable," he says.

Broadband prices, which have never been regulated by the government, will likely receive closer scrutiny, he says.

Currently, broadband costs $40 to $60 a month on average, putting it out of reach for many low-income consumers.

Big carriers have resisted calls by consumer groups to lower prices. In the face of new competition, particularly from small wireless providers, they might not have a choice, Glenchur says.

Though broadband is widely available in urban and suburban markets, in many rural areas dial-up Internet access is still common. Dial-up isn't fast enough to handle interactive fare, such as video streaming. Satellite-based broadband is an option for rural consumers, but it tends to be quite slow, Scott notes.

In the USA currently, the average broadband speed is less than 3 megabits per second. Other countries, including Japan, claim average speeds of more than 60. Australia recently committed to 100 megabits.

Scott says the FCC would do well to heed those examples. "If we're talking about the Internet as infrastructure, the bar (on speed) has to be pretty high."



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