Image: Colorado is one of a number of states where state and local governments are prohibited by law from directly providing broadband service. image © 2005 Matthew. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. Article reprinted courtesy of Stateline.org

Colorado is one of a number of states where state and local governments are prohibited by law from directly providing broadband service, for example, free municipal wireless connections. So a recommendation in the Federal Communication Commission's National Broadband Plan has state officials scrambling. Released in March, the plan calls for Congress to ensure that state and local governments don't pose any barriers to making broadband available. If approved, the action could override the state laws.

"The worst thing that could happen in the state of Colorado is for a law like that to be rolled back, and we don't have accompanying policies in place," says John Conley, executive director of the state's Statewide Internet Portal Authority. To deal with that and other possible federal actions, Colorado has formed a broadband council to review the plan, as well as state policy, and deliver guidance to state lawmakers in the coming year.

Colorado's situation reflects the dynamically changing broadband environment in the United States today and the efforts of state officials not only to keep up with the changes in the plan, but to get out ahead of them. And since March, the FCC, its plan and other factors shaping the landscape of broadband in the nation have been on a wild ride.

What's at stake, states recognize, is the potential of broadband to improve the delivery of health care, public safety, education, and other services-and to make their workers and businesses competitive in a global economy. According to a new report released June 21 by the Pew Center on the States, "Bringing America Up to Speed: States' Role in Expanding Broadband," states -- with an infusion of $7.2 billion in federal stimulus funds and guidance from the FCC's broadband plan -- have stepped up efforts to ensure universal access to fast, reliable broadband connections and to give their residents the skills and resources they need to understand the benefits of broadband and get the most out of it.

Three weeks after the release of the plan, however, a federal court ruling, Comcast v. FCC, effectively undermined the FCC's authority to regulate many aspects of broadband, including oversight of management of Internet service providers and enforcement of a range of objectives, such as network neutrality, which prohibits providers from restricting all forms of content. "The effect of the Comcast decision," says Austin Schlick, general counsel for the FCC, "made their services unregulated and unregulatable under the current legal framework." Perhaps worried that Congress would step in to set its own standards, a group of providers, including Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, banded together to voluntarily impose net neutrality on themselves, developing guidelines to manage their networks. Net neutrality advocates have said that such an agreement, while nice, is no substitute for clear rules.

The court decision also casts some of the National Broadband Plan's recommendations into doubt. For one thing, it could upset the FCC's plan to reform the Universal Service Fund, which now guarantees funding for universal telecommunications services to everyone, to also provide broadband to all Americans, according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

The ruling also threatens, he says, the plan's recommendations that would protect consumers and promote competition by ensuring transparency in broadband access services, safeguard the privacy of consumer information, facilitate access to broadband services by persons with disabilities, protect against cyber-attacks, ensure next-generation 911 services for broadband communications and preserve a free and open Internet.