News

FCC Focuses on the Big Broadband Picture

9/05/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

The Federal Communications Commission started off the last of its first round of broadband workshops with some big-picture pondering of ideas and outside-the-box developments that could shape the future of broadband.

They included the bifurcation of the Internet into a number of networks, insuring the plan was sufficiently flexible to deal with the fluidity of change, and the need for more research and development.

Moderator Jon Peha, the FCC's chief technology officer, said the goal was to look at cutting-edge broadband ideas, then figure out how to use the broadband plan to hone that edge.

Dick Green, former head of CableLabs, put in a plug for cable's last-mile architecture, which he said was built to be adaptable and flexible. He pointed out that the industry was on its third generation of the DOCSIS cable-modem specification, growing from 1 Megabit per second at the outset to 10 Mbps now to 100-plus Mbps speeds and looking at more than 300 Mpbs in the next iteration.

He said that there was enormous capacity left in the hybrid coax model, pointing out that the actual drop to the home was capable of handling 5 Gigabits.

One of the keys to handling the growing capacity from video and whatever else comes down the pike, and pipe, is transitioning from bandwidth-hogging analog to digital, Green said.

David Clark, professor and senior research scientist at MIT's computer lab, dominated much of the conversation in the first half of the workshop, which focused on those big ideas. He was even asked to sit in on the following panel — on Internet TV — by impressed FCC staffers. In fact, all of the participants in the first series of panels got high marks from staffers looking for help in drawing up the national broadband rollout plan, due to Congress by Feb. 17, 2010.

One staffer suggested they would bolt the panelists to the floor and make them write the broadband plan to assuage the concerns of broadband adviser Blair Levin about hitting the Feb. 17 deadline. “Make yourself comfortable,” he joked. “Food will be brought in.”

Clark argued that wireless would not become a substitute for wired broadband, saying it would wind up being some combination of both. Fluidity was the concept he drove home, about both the state of broadband and how the national plan should be structured.

Another big issue was research and development. Most panelists agreed that the U.S. needed to do more of it.

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said he was troubled by the lack of investment in R&D, saying there was no institutional system to bring together all the key players in one place and focus on generic tech development. He said Bell Labs was a shell of its former self, and that U.S. investment lagged behind many Asian and European countries.

Green agreed that more research was needed, perhaps the sponsored research centers proposed by another panelist, but he also said that real-world test-beds, rather than theoretical ones, might be more useful. He called it hard — on a pure, theoretical basis — to understand how all the stakeholders fit together, saying there was a need for experimental platforms, like the TV Everywhere online video model being tested by cable operators and telcos.

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