The U.S. communications regulator unveiled on Thursday a proposal for achieving universal broadband coverage by the end of the decade.

Some 18 million Americans do not have access to broadband where they live and work despite some $4.5 billion in public money spent each year to subsidize telephone service for rural families.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed a strategy for revamping that government subsidy program to help deploy high-speed Internet service to millions of Americans living in rural and costly-to-serve areas.

The costs of this broadband gap are measured in jobs not created, existing job openings not filled and our nation's competitiveness not advanced, Genachowski said in a speech on Thursday, acknowledging that the current program is broken.

The FCC earlier in the year proposed modernizing the $8 billion universal service fund -- paid for through fees added to consumers' telephone bills -- to spur infrastructure investment while removing inefficiencies in the program.

Genachowski's proposal would gradually move the largest program within the universal service fund, the program that subsidizes telephone service, to directly support fixed and mobile broadband.

His plan would also phase out funding for duplicating services offered by several phone companies serving the same area.

Broadband buildout to unserved areas could being in early 2012 under the plan, bringing high-speed Internet to hundreds of thousands of homes in the near-term.

It will help cut the number of Americans bypassed by broadband by up to one half over the following five years, and it will put us on the path to universal broadband by the end of the decade, Genachowski added.

The comprehensive set of reforms will be circulated to the other commissioners on Thursday, and are set for a vote at the FCC's October 27 meeting.

(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)