Public Knowledge, Free Press Underwhelmed By FCC Broadband Policy Outline

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Public Knowledge took aim at the FCC's broadband update Wednesday, suggesting the commission's briefing on the policy side of the FCC's plan had misplaced priorities and did not sufficiently address competition. FCC broadband advisor Blair Levin said it did and counted the ways.

Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn said her group supported reforming the Universal Service Fund to include support for broadband and backing municipal networks as one possible way to deploy broadband to unserved and underserved areas.

"They would do nothing to reverse the slide caused by eight years of misbegotten telecommunications policies that have crippled most meaningful broadband competition for consumers," she said.

What Public Knowledge wanted to hear about, she said, was "bold steps," like opening telecom networks to competitors or separation of carriers into wholesale and retail components, not the "incremental steps" the commission was proposing.

Levin told reporters in a conference call later in the day that the criticism was flat wrong.

Free Press echoed that concern. "In the outline presented today, the FCC ignored the competition crisis," said Free Press communications director Liz Rose. "Congress said to solve the broadband problem. We had hoped that today's meeting would focus more on spurring competition."

Asked whether the FCC had scaled back on the idea requiring telecom companies to be open to competitors because of the economy, Levin said no.

"We aspire to be simultaneously visionary and pragmatic," he said. "We are open to all kinds of proposals. I just think that is an inaccurate assessment... It's not like we have been shying away from big players who don't like what we're saying, it's that we are trying to come up with pragmatic ways of addressing the problems that Congress asked [us to]."

He said that criticism from Public Knowledge and Free Press had about as much accuracy as early criticisms that the broadband planning process was not open and transparent.

Levin said that there are a lot of things in the plan designed to address competition. Getting more spectrum, he said, is all about having a more competitive broadband marketplace. The FCC is also looking to spur a market in "gateway" TV set-tops that would combine Internet and TV functions. That is on the device side, but Levin said, "[it] is certainly about competition."

Another facet of the plan, which FCC chairman Julius Genachowski pointed to as one of the keys, would be transparency in the kinds of broadband service and speeds being delivered to consumers. "How can you have a competitive market if people don't know the actual performance of the things they are getting and could be getting if they chose."

The FCC is also contemplating ways to lower pole attachment fees, smooth rights of way, and otherwise make it easier to lay fiber. That, he said, is all about competition. "What we would like to do is increase the territory where there is a business case for two or more providers. By lowering the cost of input, we are increasing that territory," he said.

Levin said competition is a complicated issue, as are the markets, which are rapidly changing. He also said there would be an "extensive discussion" about competition.

He noted that there are things that are pretty easy to know about the future, while others are hard. In the pretty easy camp: an increased demand for spectrum. What he said nobody can yet know is the competitive reaction to cable's upgrade to Docsis 3.0 by Verizon and AT&T and mid-tier carriers.

"If we don't get more spectrum to wireless carriers, the odds that they will be able to compete with wireline broadband diminishes," he said.

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