FCC Scrutinizes Barriers to Broadband Access in the U.S.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today reached a milestone in a process to devise a National Broadband Plan that may include the controversial goal of significantly expanding access to high-speed Internet and other telecommunications services. Advocates of the goal say it will provide a long-lasting stimulus to the economy and improve health care for many Americans. But the price tag is high — $20 billion to $350 billion, according to Commission estimates — and no one is volunteering to pay.

The goal could also require telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to open up their infrastructure to competitors, which would theoretically foster competition and lower prices for consumers.

An FCC taskforce working on the plan — the final version is due on February 17 — reported today on the barriers to the goal, including the fact that the Federal Universal Service Fund, to which most Americans contribute through fees associated with phone service, does not support broadband development. Instead, it supports efforts to ensure that almost all Americans can have access to affordable basic phone service.

Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Kevin Werbach, who has advised the FCC on other issues, says the laws underpinning the Universal Service fund "are out of date and not sustainable" given the rapid changes in communications technology. But he also notes that there remains much debate over whether to expand the fund to include support of wider deployment of broadband. "Most [industrialized] countries have funds to support broadband, and they also have greater access" than Americans, he says.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the plan may call for higher consumer fees to beef up the Universal Service Fund, but Werbach says the process is far from complete.

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