Even as congressional Democrats discuss an opt-out provision for national health-care reform -- a move that undercuts the basic premise of President Obama's proposal, that real efficiencies can only be created when everyone is insured -- private interests are taking aim at the administration's proposal to impose a national broadband tax.
Part of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski's far-reaching broadband plan -- which calls for broadband penetration rates in excess of 90 percent -- is an interoperable public-safety network. That would let disparate public-safety networks run by all levels of government to seamlessly communicate.
"The country must do better," the FCC says in the 376-page plan. "With broadband, 911 call centers ... could receive text, pictures and videos from the public and relay them to first responders, [and] the government could use broadband networks to disseminate vital information to the public during emergencies in multiple formats and languages."
Years of Stagnation
There has been a consensus on the need for interoperable public-safety networks since 9/11/2001, when state and local agencies failed to communicate key information due to a lack of interoperability. Under former Chairman Kevin Martin, the FCC ran a high-profile auction of spectrum -- the so-called "D block" -- that came with myriad requirements that the private sector provide support for public networks.
No company was interested and the auction failed to fetch its $1.3 billion reserve price.
Genachowski is suggesting the creation of an Emergency Response Interoperability Center under the FCC that would ensure that devices and networks work together.
"Focusing on interoperability from the beginning should help the public-safety broadband network to overcome the difficulties faced by other earlier voice efforts," the report says.
Paying the Bill
But if having a public-safety network that really works is good for everyone, it's not the sort of thing that can be handed off to the private sector in exchange for the potential upside. So someone has to foot the bill -- either by a congressional appropriation or a tax on ISPs or ratepayers.
The FCC estimates that building the new network would cost $6.5 billion over the next 10 years -- and $12 billion to $15 billion to sustain the operation in the long term. The report calls on Congress to allocate funds by fiscal year 2012.
While Congress will need to allocate money for the build-out, the FCC also called for a national broadband tax on all ratepayers as "a fair, sustainable and reasonable funding mechanism." The report adds, "The fee should be sufficient to support the operation and evolution of the public-safety broadband network."
Public safety also includes cybersecurity. The FCC hopes to deliver a cybersecurity road map to Congress within 180 days; require broadband and VoIP providers to report all outages; and create a cybersecurity information reporting system with the Department of Homeland Security.
The FCC plan also calls for next-generation 911 systems to incorporate broadband.
While businesses and government see how important national broadband is, when it comes to imposing taxes the plan could face an uphill battle -- and reforms like health care could remain in the shadows.