News

Broad Views on B’Band Plan

6/13/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

The Federal Communications Commission got its marching orders from Congress earlier this year to come up with a national broadband plan by Feb. 17, 2010. But if the agency had to take directions from all the comments it has collected on how to go about doing that, it would be marching in a circle.

As expected, the FCC’s docket on a national broadband deployment plan was inundated with suggestions as the deadline passed last week, including from the Government Accountability Office, which is essentially Congress’ research arm.

There was general agreement that broadband is vital to the nation’s future, that getting it to everyone is important — and that getting everyone who gets it to adopt it is equally if not more important. But the devil was in the varying definitions and perspectives.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association told the FCC last week that “the Commission’s current regulatory regime has led to widespread deployment of broadband networks.” More than 90% of the nation may have access to broadband, the NCTA added, but “while broadband deployment and adoption have both been successful by all reasonable measures, there is room for improvement.”

Washington, D.C., public-interest group Public Knowledge saw it entirely differently: “The current deregulatory environment has utterly failed to produce the residential service or middle-mile infrastructure we must have to meet our national broadband needs.”

As predicted, network operators, including cable and telephone companies, spoke essentially with one voice about the need to get broadband to unserved areas, along with spurring adoption by those who can get broadband but don’t for a number of reasons — such as price, lack of digital literacy or concerns over content and privacy issues.

Where private investment does not make sense, they argued for targeted government efforts, aimed at people who can’t get the service, rather than underwriting competition where broadband is already available.

For folks like Free Press and computer companies, access is not just about whether people can get the service, but whether it is speedy enough to handle everything that may come down the pipe, and whether it’s provided for a competitive price.

The GAO weighed in last week with the sort of news that was no news to anyone anymore, which is that networks have gotten broadband to most of the country, but that there are gaps — mainly in rural areas and mostly because it is unprofitable to wire them.

The GAO’s recommendation, seconded by the chairs of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Telecommunications Subcommittee, was that the FCC work with the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and the Department of Agriculture to coordinate efforts and come up with benchmarks.

In that they had company from Cox Communications, whose filing was filled with metrics, including cutting the number of unserved households in half and getting broadband into every school by 2012. Verizon Communications has proposed 100% broadband access by 2014.

A coalition of groups representing a rainbow of minorities told the FCC that it needs to put minorities at the front of the line when it comes to bringing broadband to the underserved.

The National Urban League, National Council of La Raza, the Asian American Justice Center, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council released a study that concluded the key to bridging that digital and economic divide was promoting adoption, which meant overcoming various barriers, including price and concern about content and privacy.

Broadband is not a nicety, they argued, but a necessity for full civic and economic participation.

If Public Knowledge is on one end of the spectrum, calling for hefty government oversight and regulation of the rollout, the Competitive Enterprise Institute is at the other end.

The institute’s message to the FCC, in comments on its national broadband rollout plan, was that the best way to encourage deployment is to deregulate — a message not likely to resonate with the commission’s current majority.

“The best way the commission can stimulate broadband is not by imposing new layers of regulation, but by adopting a deregulatory stimulus in which government-created entry barriers are eliminated and costly regulations are reduced,” the CEI said.

The group favors private investment, saying: “Spending any taxpayer dollars whatsoever on broadband deployment might be contrary to the public interest. In fact, government spending on broadband stimulus may well crowd out private investment, resulting in economic inefficiency and harming consumer welfare.”

CEI also wasn’t ready to concede that everyone can or even should be made to adopt broadband. “There is little reason to believe that broadband is a universally valued service,” it argued in its comment, “despite the fact that a vocal segment of the population evidently finds broadband to be extraordinarily valuable.” The Institute pointed to the people who have not adopted cable or don’t own a computer.

It argues against establishing baseline broadband speeds or any “overly technical” definition of broadband, saying there is only marginal benefit to the consumer for extremely high speeds, though conceding speed does make a difference for downloading high-definition video and large files.

The FCC now must digest the information and apply it not only to its national broadband plan, but to its advisory role in the NTIA and the Rural Utilities Service program as well as other inquiries, including whether and how to reform the Universal Service Fund, which currently underwrites phone service but not broadband.

There is a bit of a timing problem. The FCC does not have to produce the broadband deployment report until next February, long after NTIA and RUS are supposed to have handed out some of the money to do that.

A source at NTIA says its plan is still to have the guidelines for the first tranche of broadband stimulus bucks released for public consumption by the end of this month if possible, early July if not.

September