National Broadband Plan B

There are ways to take broadband nationwide without a hammer. The less aggressive approach could also make it available faster to more unserved communities than the current National Broadband Plan. The 2009 Congressional directive to the Federal Communications Commission was to “ensure every American has access to broadband capability.” That’s achievable without reassigning massive swaths of radio-frequency spectrum, as the Plan now proposes.

First off, areas that lack broadband service have been identified. There are 1,024 counties or “county equivalents” lacking broadband, according to the FCC’s Sixth Broadband Deployment Report. They comprise 24 million people in 8.9 million households that are generally poorer and more rural than the national average. The same areas very likely were outliers as the nation adopted electricity. Lights are on in Custer County, Nebraska tonight because of the Rural Electrification Act.

U.S. farmsteads were still dark coming out of World War II, while Europe’s countryside was incandescent. Private utilities here balked at running lines into the country. Small-town residents were charged more than city folk. Rather than competing with private enterprise, the REA created a loan guarantee program for community cooperatives. Within a decade, rural electrification went from 10 percent of homes to 90 percent.

The odds are minimal that the 1,024 unserved areas will have broadband in 10 years under the current plan. It proposes to free 500 MHz of spectrum in that pe-riod of time. There’s a concomitant goal of getting 100 Mbps service to 100 million homes. That will leave roughly 30 million to go. Guess which ones.

The only way those unserved areas will have reliable broadband service within a decade is through community-based initiatives. These could be funded through the current $7.2 billion rural broadband grant program, which now appears to be supporting upgrades and metropolitan projects. Instead of reliev-ing every U.S. television market of 20 channels, the FCC should focus on organizing community-based projects that involve broadcasters. The models are Claudeville, Va., population 900; and the much larger city of Wilmington, N.C. Both launched broadband networks using broadcast TV white spaces. The two communities are test beds, but well on their way to homegrown broadband provision. Another 21 municipalities and state governments are work-ing on an interoperable public-safety network.

Deploying broadband one municipality at a time may not provide nationwide access on one set of frequencies, but network search technologies are extant. If the true intention of the National Broadband Plan is to “ensure every American has access to broadband capability,” it should focus first on unserved areas, and not a battle with broadcasting.