FCC releases fast broadband plan

The Federal Communications Commission has released plans to upgrade Internet access for all Americans, with Internet speeds up to 25 times greater than the current average, expanded coverage and more airwaves for mobile services.

Nearly 200 million Americans had fast Internet access at home last year, but about 100 million do not, says the FCC document.

"Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life," the report says.

The plan is likely to start an intense round of lobbying by communications companies over the legislation and FCC rules that will underpin the goals.

A shift in airwaves from TV broadcasters such as CBS could benefit wireless providers such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Upgrading the nation's wireless and wireline networks could also boost companies such as equipment maker Alcatel Lucent, wireless chip maker Qualcomm and fibre-optic providers such as Corning.

Under the FCC plan, a Connect America Fund would receive up to $15.5bn over the next decade, using money shifted from the Universal Service Fund that currently supports telephone service for poor and rural areas.

The plan aims to ensure 100 million American households can get Internet access at speeds of 100Mbit/s by 2020. As an interim goal, the plan calls for 100 million US homes to have 50Mbit/s Internet access speeds by 2015.

The current household average speed is about 4Mbit/s. Even homes with cable or fibre-optic Internet access only achieve speeds averaging 5Mbit/s to 6Mbit/s.

The plan also stresses the need to devote more airwaves to servicing the bandwidth requirements of smartphones and mobile Internet devices.

The FCC wants Congress to give it the authority to hold auctions that would provide incentives for broadcasters to give up some of their airwaves for purchase by wireless companies.

The FCC said it would leave open the possibility of taking action if broadcasters do not voluntarily give up spectrum.

Analysts said meeting even the FCC's 50 Mbit/s interim goal would likely take a lot more investment by companies like AT&T and Qwest Communications.

"Five years from now it would be tough for them to get anything of any size done," said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Christopher King. "They would really need to start today."

Some analysts have also been sceptical about whether broadcasters will give up their airwaves unless the FCC offers them a big percentage of the auction proceeds.

Julius Genachowski, the FCC's chairman, said that "a number of broadcasters" were open to his "win-win" plan, which would have them give up airwave licences for auction in exchange for receiving a share of the proceeds.

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