News

Group: Overhaul FCC Broadband Rulings

5/17/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Open Internet-advocacy group Free Press has a modest proposal: review and, if necessary, reverse any regulatory rulings by the Federal Communications Commission that don’t promote open broadband competition and openness.

In a report with the ambitious title of Dismantling Digital Deregulation: Toward a National Broadband Strategy, Free Press also called for codifying the FCC’s access principles into network-neutrality rules, and for classifying broadband as a telecommunications service, thus allowing for open-access conditions to be imposed on Internet-service providers.

The Supreme Court effectively laid the groundwork for the network-neutrality debate in its 2005 Brand X decision, upholding the FCC’s determination that cable operators did not have to open their broadband lines to outside ISPs.

The FCC proceeded to apply that principle to broadband delivery in general.

Free Press’s broadband remake would also include a data-driven standard of market power and abuse by broadband providers. It also wants to open more of the “public airwaves” for use by unlicensed devices like laptops. And it would like to see the universal service fund transition from supporting phone service to underwriting broadband service.

The report received favorable reviews from acting FCC chairman Michael Copps. “The Free Press Report really highlights the many broadband challenges that were ignored for far too long,” he told Multichannel News in an e-mail.

Copps laid some of the blame at the feet of his agency. “[T]he commission unfortunately contributed to the problem over the last eight years,” he said. “Too many Americans don’t have access to affordable, high-speed broadband today and that’s because there was never any plan to get there. Nor did we do the kind of in-depth analysis we should have been doing. The commission is now committed to seeing that change.”

“We are eagerly working on developing a national broadband plan and we welcome any and all suggestions for how to proceed, including those from Free Press.”

The FCC is currently seeking comments on the national broadband rollout plan it must present to Congress by February of next year as part of the economic stimulus plan’s broadband-deployment initiative.

“America’s broadband failures are the result of policy failures and the blame falls squarely on the FCC’s shoulders,” said Free Press research director S. Derek Turner, who wrote the report. “The FCC predicted a future of broadband competition, and then regulated as if it were already here. While promising consumer benefits, it tore down consumer protections. Digital deregulation reduced the broadband revolution to broadband mediocrity.”

Copps might have found a lot to agree with in the Free Press report, but will his successor, Julius Genachowski, feel the same way? Genachowski helped craft the Obama administration’s technology policy, including its support for network neutrality.

Randolph May of free-market think tank The Free State Foundation, isn’t sure, but he isn’t taking any chances, either. “I just don’t think we know, and until we know for sure that [Genachowski] doesn’t accept this vision, then we have to make it clear why it would not be a good thing for the country to adopt,” said May.

That’s not a good thing, according to May, because it is “a radical vision of the return of the very same type of common-carrier regime for broadband that prevailed in the last century.”

May said that has been the end game all along for network-neutrality backers, but “rarely, if ever, have they unabashedly made it so clear.”

McDowell said he had only read a summary of the report, but cautioned: “I think we should step back, take a deep breath. … What’s most important is that we look at the U.S.’s broadband situation from a multitude of viewpoints and not rely on one or two lenses to view the situation through.”

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