FCC to propose nationwide expansion of high-speed Internet

Culminating a year of extensive outreach and study, federal regulators on Tuesday will propose an ambitious, decade-long road map to extend high-speed Internet access to every corner of the country and make the United States home to “the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.”

The plan by the Federal Communications Commission sets a goal of assuring that at least 100 million homes have affordable access to so-called broadband networks that allow them to download data from the Internet at speeds of at least 100 megabits per second -- 20 times or more faster than most people get today. The proposal, which will be sent to Congress, also seeks to put super-fast Internet access of 1 gigabit per second in public facilities such as schools, hospitals and government buildings in every community.

The FCC released the proposal’s executive summary Monday.

Another key component of the plan is creating a new wireless network for police, firefighters and other public safety workers so they can communicate and share data and video between departments during major emergencies. Lawmakers and public safety organizations have pushed for such a network since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when first responders at the World Trade Center had trouble communicating. In 2008, the FCC tried to use the lure of cheap access to public airwaves during a major spectrum auction to convince private companies to help build such a network, but the effort failed.

Tapping into the wireless airwaves is a key part of the FCC’s plan. It wants to reallocate a huge chunk of radio-frequency spectrum to use for high-speed Internet service, regarded as a much cheaper and quicker way of spreading broadband service than laying wire of fiber cables -- particularly in rural areas. But that spectrum is assigned to TV and radio broadcasters, who are expected to strongly oppose any proposal to take it away.

Major telecommunications companies, such as Verizon and AT&T, also are expected to fight efforts by the FCC to impose more control over Internet access.

But the FCC said the federal government needs to do more to assure that high-speed networks reach all Americans, allowing them to tap into the information economy and take advantage of advancements to come, such as electronic health records.

“The National Broadband Plan is a 21st-century road map to spur economic growth and investment, create jobs, educate our children, protect our citizens, and engage in our democracy,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat and former technology executive appointed by President Obama last year who has made expanding Internet access a top priority. “It’s an action plan, and action is necessary to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, and harness the power of broadband to help address so many vital national issues.”

Access to high-speed Internet service has grown dramatically -- nearly 200 million Americans now have access, compared with 8 million in 2000, the FCC said. But about 100 million U.S. homes do not have high-speed Internet access in their homes. Much of that is because of the price for service, but about 14 million Americans could not get access -- even if they could afford the bill -- because it is not available where they live.

Congress included $7.2 billion for grants to expand high-speed Internet access in the $787-billion economic stimulus plan passed last year, and gave the FCC a year to develop a strategy for maximizing that money. Consumer groups and Internet activists have complained for years that the United States had no real broadband strategy, a major reason that the country continues falling in international rankings for high-speed Internet access per capita. The U.S. is 15th in the 2009 tally from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development after having been fourth in 2001.

In addition to the stimulus money, the FCC wants to shift as much as $15.5 billion from an existing fund designed to provide affordable access to telecommunications services -- mostly phone service -- to underserved communities.

“The plan is just the type of comprehensive, compelling road map that our country needs to catch up. When America has a plan, America can lead the world,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who wrote the requirement for such a strategy into the stimulus legislation. “This is not just a plan, but a road map to our broadband future. A future in which we consume less energy, improve the quality of health care with electronic medical records and ensure that every American has access to the tools they need to succeed.”