Consumer advocate says FCC broadband proposal will fall short of goals

Critic says plan would leave up to 30 million households without access.

A prominent consumer advocate warned Wednesday that an FCC proposal to bring ultrafast broadband service to 100 million households over the next decade -- at the sizzling speed of 100 megabits per second -- would leave up to 30 million households without access to the technology.

Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, said that while he is encouraged by the agency's goal, which he described as "bold," he worried that it falls short of the mark.

The proposal was unveiled Tuesday by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski as a key tenet of the agency's upcoming national broadband plan, which is due to Congress March 17. The ambitious technology blueprint, required by last year's economic stimulus package, tasks the commission with developing recommendations for achieving universal, affordable Internet access by 2020.

"By 2020, there will be about 130 million households in America," Cooper said during a news conference on Capitol Hill in which public-interest groups urged the agency to do more to safeguard consumers and foster competition under the plan.

"I know that Chairman Genachowski's vision of America is not a place where 100 million households have 100 megabits of service, and 30 million households have zero megabits," Cooper said.

He urged the FCC to strive to reach 120 million households, which he considers a realistic figure consistent with the agency's push to raise the broadband adoption rate from 65 percent to 90 percent by 2020.

Asked if Genachowski's proposal might inadvertently exacerbate the digital divide between technological haves and have-nots, Cooper was careful not to criticize the chairman. But he did say the FCC would be unwise to "rush ahead" with implementing a strategy that doesn't fully consider the impact on Americans who lack computers or broadband.

The groups want the FCC to include five core goals in its plan, including a broadband adoption rate of 90 percent -- which Genachowski endorsed Tuesday. Other goals, the groups said, should be establishing more competition beyond the cable and telecom duopolies in most markets; tougher consumer protections within 12-18 months; improved data collection standards; and new "nondiscrimination" rules ensuring that any device can be used on any network.

"Without addressing these five elements, the national broadband plan will not be capable of meeting the goals that Congress has set," said Harold Feld, legal director for Public Knowledge.