While most people associate March 17 with leprechauns, beer, and all things Irish, in the tech policy world the date holds additional, geekier significance: It’s the anniversary of the 2010 National Broadband Plan, a Federal Commincations Commission–led initiative that promotes the goal of achieving universal, affordable Internet access by 2020. Today, the plan turns five years old—an occasion that reminds us that even though net neutrality has dominated the headlines in 2015, the FCC has also taken significant steps over the past few months to help improve the American broadband market and ensure that we remain globally competitive in the 21st century. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but we’ve come a long way since the National Broadband Plan made its debut half a decade ago.
As part of the 2009 stimulus package, which included billions of dollars in funding for rural broadband infrastructure investment, Congress directed the FCC to develop a detailed strategy to ensure that every American had high-speed Internet access. After a year of research and soliciting public comment, the FCC unveiled the National Broadband Plan in March 2010. The final product—nearly 400 pages filled with long-term goals, charts, and footnotes quoting Shakespeare—laid out a multipronged approach for the federal government to “ensure that the entire broadband ecosystem—networks, devices, content and applications—is healthy.” Its four key strategies included encouraging fiber investment, allocating resources like spectrum more efficiently, promoting universal service, and maximizing the benefits of broadband to improve delivery of public services like health care and education.
The National Broadband Plan received its fair share of constructive criticism, but on the day it was launched, many advocates rallied behind it, recognizing that it was a long overdue step in the right direction. Still, it has been rough in the tech policy world recently. In January 2014, a federal appeals court gutted the FCC’s net neutrality rules, sending the agency back to the drawing board. A few weeks later, Comcast announced that it sought approval of another big merger (although this time in a proposed horizontal bid to acquire Time Warner Cable, as opposed to its vertical merger with NBC Universal, which was under review in 2010). And, despite the existence of a detailed National Broadband Plan, Americans in big cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles continued to pay higher prices for slower Internet than many of their international peers. It’s even worse in rural areas. After a rollercoaster year, however, the United States stands poised for much greater success today.
First of all, the FCC is tackling the issue of improving Internet access in schools and libraries. According to the FCC’s estimates, at least 35 percent of schools and 85 percent of libraries lack access to fiber infrastructure—which is by far the most cost-effective and “future proof” technology available today to deliver high-speed Internet access. Six months after the commission announced a major overhaul of E-rate—the Universal Service Fund program that subsidizes connectivity for students and library patrons across the country—it released a second E-rate Modernization Order in December to make sure that the program has enough permanent funding to meet its ambitious target goals by the end of the decade. In addition to raising E-rate’s funding cap for the first time to the tune of $1.5 billion a year, the changes are designed to help address the fiber gap. The goal of the updated E-rate program is to bring gigabit speeds to every classroom and library by the end of the decade, consistent with a target set in the National Broadband Plan five years ago.
Beyond wiring schools and libraries, the FCC is also re-evaluating the high-speed Internet access market more broadly. In January, the FCC published the latest installment of its annual “Broadband Progress Report,” which measures whether broadband deployment is happening quickly enough. Among other things, the January 2015 report officially changed the FCC’s definition of broadband from 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds to 25 and 3, respectively. While changing the definition alone doesn’t automatically trigger any action, it has a significant impact on how we measure broadband adoption and competition in the United States. It could also factor into the analysis of the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger by redefining how much of the high-speed Internet market the combined company would dominate.
Most recently, on Feb. 26—the same day that the FCC adopted its historic net neutrality rules—the agency also announced that it intended to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that limit the expansion of municipally owned broadband networks. Responding to petitions from the cities of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, the FCC used its federal authority to promote broadband deployment to overturn the restrictive laws, an encouraging sign for proponents of local broadband choice. The decision also delivers on one of the key components of the Obama administration’s new initiative aimed at spurring high-speed broadband investment through support for community networks, which the president unveiled just before his 2015 State of the Union. It remains to be seen how the narrow ruling will affect the other 17 states that have erected barriers to local broadband investment, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction that could lead to more Americans having access to world-class broadband speeds at reasonable prices.
Of course, five years in, some of the National Broadband Plan’s goals still seem far off, particularly when it comes to providing affordable high-speed connectivity to underserved and rural communities across the United States. According to analysis by the Benton Foundation, only about 20 percent of the plan’s goals have been completed (though work has begun on more than half of the unfinished ones). Fifty-five million Americans don’t even have access to Internet connections that meet the FCC’s new definition of broadband, let alone inexpensive options. But while the FCC gears up for the next phase of Universal Service Fund reform—revamping the Lifeline program to support broadband service for low-income Americans—it’s probably OK to raise a glass of green beer and celebrate the progress we’ve made so far.