June 22, 2010 By Will Wilson
In all of these areas, states have direct and indirect interests as well. For example, the funding for a broadband plan proposal to expand E-rate, a grant program that enables many schools and libraries to be connected to the Internet, could be in question. "Over the years, we have done very well with that program to get Internet to our schools," says Craig Orgeron, strategic services director at Mississippi's Department of Information Technology Services, who waits along with officials from other states to see how broadband's regulatory limbo will affect the E-Rate program and other areas.
After the ruling, the FCC voted June 17 to begin the process of reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service like traditional phone lines, over which the FCC has more clearly delineated regulatory authority. Genchowski, though, has called for an approach that would scale back some of this authority that he has said would be inappropriate for broadband -- such as regulating Internet content -- an approach similar to the FCC's regulation of wireless telephone.
But U.S. Congressman Lee Terry, a Republican from Nebraska and a proponent of broadband for revitalizing economies in rural areas, argues that Congress needs to step in and decide the next steps for broadband and broadband regulation. He says that the FCC is "usurping the Congressional role in broadband planning." He is not alone; more than half of Congress, including members of both parties, has expressed concern about the new reclassification plan. In one of several Congressional letters sent to the FCC before its vote, more than 70 House Democrats urged, "the significant regulatory impact of reclassifying broadband service ... should not be done without additional direction from Congress."
That could slow the process, however. Harold Feld, legal director for Public Knowledge, a public interest group focused on digital rights, notes, "Democrats and Republicans are fairly far apart on what sort of action they'd like to see." It took 20 years, he says, for Congress to act when similar FCC authority over cable television was in question.
Right now, state officials like Colorado's Conley are hoping just to get some clarity. Conley, the go-to person when others in the state have questions related to state or national broadband issues, says he is disconcerted by the murkiness that currently shrouds some important national broadband matters. "If someone asks me what you have to do to meet the net neutrality requirement, I don't know," he says. "And I don't know where to look."
Although the federal ruling casts uncertainty on aspects of FCC authority over broadband, it does not affect many of the recommendations in the FCC's broadband plan. Indeed, the FCC and other agencies already have begun implementing some of the suggestions, including changing regulations regarding utility pole attachments and taking steps to auction broadband spectrum..
For states, perhaps the most significant recent development has been the announcement of a new round of National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) grants for broadband mapping and planning activities, funded out of the $350 million the Recovery Act had designated for states to map the availability, speed, and location of broadband services. The new grants, in addition to the $100 million already granted for state mapping, cover three additional years beyond the initial two that the first round of grants had covered and expand funding to include state task force planning work and programs to increase computer ownership and Internet use.
"The NTIA broadband mapping program has allowed us to take a more centralized
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