Viewpoint

No Home Left Behind

6/27/2011 8:28 AM

As a former Navy Seal, Comcast Cable president Neil Smit could likely snap a man’s arm like a bread stick.

So I listened intently when I sat down with Smit several weeks ago during a visit to Comcast, and he mentioned one word over and over like a mantra: innovate.

He was trying to explain to a few editors and reporters how the pace of innovation is his singular focus at the company these days, and how the results speak for themselves. Comcast has unveiled new navigation guides, faster speeds and a growing list of new services to allow voice, video and data over new platforms - all in the past few quarters.

Todd Spangler puts the innovations of Comcast - and the industry writ large - under a spotlight in this week’s Cover Story, noting a new momentum in the cable industry’s efforts to keep up with consumers’ mercurial digital demands.

Recalling Smit’s words later at the Cable Show in Chicago, I was blown away by CEO Brian Roberts’ demo of the Webconnected, personalized “Xcalibur” TV guide, and left speechless when, a few minutes later, he downloaded 23 episodes of 30 Rock in less than two minutes, and then staged a demonstration of 100 Mbps DOCSIS service - upstream and downstream.

But I was reminded in a phone call back home to my father that same day that for all the innovative, eye-popping new services unveiled by cable operators, there’s a vast swath of U.S. consumers in rural areas that will never experience anything close to this anytime soon.

My father lives in rural Louisiana, just outside the reasonable reach of a big cable operator, with a dial-up service that forces him to wait several minutes even for a small photo - and that’s when the service is running.

He’s one of about 28% of rural U.S. residents that still lack access to the kind of broadband that most Americans take for granted, according to the FCC’s rural broadband update released last week.

It’s not acceptable, and the FCC - more so than cable operators - needs to do more, faster, to reduce barriers to broadband deployment.

For example, cable operators, through the NCTA, rightly argue that the Universal Service Fund, meant to subsidize phone service where none was available, no longer reflects the marketplace and needs major overhaul. NCTA claims the FCC is providing billions of dollars in subsidies to phone companies where they have unsubsidized competitors.

And while cable operators respectfully disagree with the FCC’s conclusion that the rate of broadband deployment is too slow, citing the billions spent on broadband buildout, they can’t deny that much more remains to be done in rural areas.

Under the National Broadband Plan, the FCC plans to migrate the USF from phone to broadband, lower pole-attachment fees and seek more market-driven solutions for rural deployment. The FCC is also proposing reforms to its low-income programs, which will benefit those in rural areas.

But if cable operators are ever to achieve the lofty goals - and speeds - set by the FCC, particularly in areas that are geographically undesirable or unprofi table, they’ll need more, and better-targeted, help from government. The sooner the better.