FCC Wants Broadband Openness

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The FCC last week issued what acting chairman Michael Copps labeled the building blocks for a national broadband rollout strategy. If so, cable operators can expect to be held to an Internet nondiscrimination principle and to increased scrutiny of their video-programming deals through the prism of broadband deployment.

Copps last week released the Federal Communications Commission’s rural broadband report, telling Congress that adopting a principle of network nondiscrimination should be part of a rural broadband plan, and that lack of access to video programming could negatively affect rural broadband rollouts.

Consumers also should be able to access lawful content, run applications and services, connect devices to the network and enjoy the benefits of competition, he said.

Copps also said there needs to be a process for “systematic and expeditious” resolution of complaints that arise concerning these principles.

The report was required by the 2008 Farm Bill.

Copps — whose name was on the report, which was written in the first person — pointed out that he had long pushed for the programming-access principle. He said it was particularly important to rural broadband because “a citizen may have only one option for broadband access.”

Copps made it clear he thought the rural plan must ensure network openness. He said ubiquitous broadband would not happen “if consumers are constrained by careful bundling, packaging and discriminatory practices that whittle away the end-to-end structure of the public Internet.”

The chairman also tied the rural strategy to another key concern of his, access to video programming. He called program access an important element in the decision to buy broadband, concluding that “video programming could become an issue that has an impact on the potential competitiveness of the service offerings of rural broadband providers and thus on rural broadband deployment.”

That sounded just fine to Ben Scott, policy director at Free Press, which has pushed for strong open-access conditions.

“We’re glad to see the FCC recognize the value of the open Internet in driving broadband growth and adoption,” he said. “We’re especially pleased that chairman Copps explicitly advocates for a fifth principle of nondiscrimination to protect Internet users and innovation. Video has become the killer app of broadband. It’s appropriate that the FCC ensure that we have a competitive online video marketplace.”

Copps said the rural report would be a “building block” in the FCC’s larger effort to draft a national broadband rollout plan, which it must do by next February at Congress’s direction.

That’s what Randolph May, president of free-market think tank The Free State Foundation, is worried about.

“I’m concerned that chairman Copps thinks that what the country needs is more net-neutrality regulation,” May said. “It is clear at this point there is sufficient broadband competition to rely on the marketplace rather than regulation to protect consumer interests. Chairman Copps doesn’t account for the costs of regulation, including the error costs; he only imagines the perceived benefits.”

The bulk of the report dealt with coordinating the efforts of various government agencies, collecting better data and broadband mapping, and other broad brush strokes. It touched on a host of issues, including pole-attachment rates and universal service reforms, but essentially logged them as factors in the equation.

For example, he said, “timely and reasonably priced access to poles and rights of way is critical to the buildout of broadband infrastructure in rural areas,” and he renewed his call for universal service reform.

He also said the effect on rural broadband should be a “critical factor” in evaluating any intercarrier compensation reform.

While Copps warned of potential abuses by network operators in strong terms, he also pointed out that the broadband plan was not beginning from scratch, thanks to investment and technological advances by those networks.

“High-capacity fiber networks — once found only in dense urban cores — have been redesigned for residential use, and their performance continues to increase,” he said. “Cable networks are being upgraded to a platform that will support data rates of up to 160 Megabits per second. While issues remain, broadband over power lines (BPL) continues to emerge as a viable technology option. Wireless technologies are extending broadband into areas unreachable by cables and wires, and enabling consumers to be connected while on the move.”

The acting chairman even had a brief shout-out for deregulation, saying that the myriad federal agencies involved in broadband efforts should consider vetting their rules and regulations “to identify those that might impede quick implementation of rural broadband.”

Cable operators have argued that the FCC should avoid rules and regulations that impose to stringent access or build-out conditions, saying that would impede the rollout by discouraging investment by the very entities—commercials networks with experience, money, and expertise—that are in the best position to build, and perhaps even more important, continue to operate broadband services.

American Cable Association president Matt Polka applauded the report: “ACA agrees that a rural broadband strategy must address middle-mile connectivity,” he said last week. “Many small and medium-sized broadband providers can’t offer their rural customers high-speed Internet access at reasonable prices when the Internet backbone service providers are overcharging them for their low-capacity, middle-mile pipes.

“ACA also agrees that video programming issues are germane to a discussion about rural broadband deployment,” Polka added.

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