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Lawmakers Probe National Broadband Plan

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Republican lawmakers, still smarting from defeat on the massive health care bill, pushed back Thursday (March 25) on aspects of the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan that could expand regulations.

"Our old plan worked. The almost 400-page [FCC] document starts by telling us that more than 95 percent of the country already has access to broadband without the government having to spend a dime on the buildout," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) during hearings held by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee. "Some components we can work together on. But if it's not broke, don't fix it. You're trying to fix things that aren't broke."

The hearings were the first on the National Broadband Plan, published by the FCC last week. (Earlier in the week, the Senate Commerce Committee postponed its hearing.)

The FCC's 10-year plan, requested by Congress, calls for the government to influence the expansion of broadband in a number of ways, including through policies and reforming law; allocation and management of spectrum; and education and incentives.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, accompanied by the FCC Commissioners, defended the plan. "The status quo is not good enough," he said. (Although 95 percent may have access, about 65 percent are using it.) "Altogether, 93 million Americans are not connected to broadband at home, including 13 million children. And 14 million Americans do not have access to broadband where they live, even if they want it," Genachowski said.

Rather than revamp the system, congressional leaders seemed to favor focusing on the on the five percent that lack access.  

"Even in a recessionary economy and without government wisdom to guide them, the industry has invested tens of billions of dollars to expand and improve its networks," Barton said. "From 2003 to 2009, these types of direct investments created some 434,000 jobs; and over the next five years, the same process could produce upwards of 500,000 new jobs.
Getting in the way of this with government rules and well-meaning, but misguided policies would be a mistake of huge proportions."

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Subcommittee chair Rick Boucher (D-Va.) both expressed some concern about the FCC's plan to free up 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless providers by persuading broadcasting to voluntarily part with about 120 MHz. "Further loss of spectrum can have a very serious adverse effect on the public," said Dingell, noting that broadcasters had already given back a third of their spectrum to the government. To surrender more could put diversity and localism "at risk."