FCC faces steep challenge in developing national broadband policy

Input from stakeholders features discord, widely differing opinions

By Doug Adams, Knight Center of Digital Excellence

It's well chronicled how the past nine years have seen the U.S. move from a leader in broadband service to being ranked somewhere in the high teens among all nations (depending on the survey). With slower, more expensive service, our nation is not in the position it should be to make sure broadband services are available and able to foster innovation at home. The U.S. is quickly losing out on economic opportunities while its position as a generator of patents slips to nations with robust broadband platforms for innovation in place.

The broadband stimulus package brings with it hope that the U.S. can get back on track to being globally competitive. While at the same time, with $7.2 billion for broadband on the table, opinions vary as to the best way to leverage this investment. While the broadband investment is both significant and welcome, the jury is out on the economic development impact it will have as the first round (and perhaps future rounds) are focused more on rural and underserved than urban centers of innovation and development.

In seeking input towards a national broadband strategy, the FCC drew more than 1,800 responses from a wide range of players including telecoms, cable companies, think tanks, advocacy groups, and individual cities.

It's not surprising there was little common ground on nearly every issue, from whether the government should protect net neutrality, to whether cable companies and telecoms should lease their lines to competitors, to whether the FCC should back local cities and towns that want to build their own broadband networks.

Internet Service Providers

In general, telecoms and cable companies are asking the FCC to take a hands-off approach. While the rankings suggest otherwise, one cable company argued in its 123-page filing that high-speed cable has "succeeded beyond anyone's predictions." The company says that the FCC's "regulatory restraint" induced cable companies to deploy high-speed cable Internet service that's now available to more than 92 percent of households.

It's not a lack of affordable service, claims one telecom organization, that accounts for a lack in broadband penetration - it's because people don't see the value in the service.

"The adoption challenge is four times as large as the access challenge, and deserves commensurate attention," the company argues.

The U.S. Telecom Association likewise argues that, "While much of the public debate on broadband has focused on access issues, a potentially larger challenge facing policy makers is on the demand side: Lack of computers, lack of computer education and perceived lack of Internet relevance at least are major impediments to America becoming a truly broadband nation."

Telecoms and cable companies also oppose any government effort to impose net neutrality principles, contending that "government regulation risks impairing that dynamism by impeding innovation and investment."

It's a fact that the cable and telecom companies have succeeded and are to be commended for their achieving basic speeds of 10 Mbps - 15 Mbps to millions of Americans through their cable networks. This is, however, significantly slower than the 100 Mbps we are seeing in leading innovating countries across the globe, but certainly a remarkable achievement given the size and population of our country. So while these companies are to be commended - we can and have to do better to compete in the 21st century.

Municipalities and cities

The Computer & Communications Industry Association specifically asked the FCC to recommend that Congress prevent states from banning municipal broadband networks.

Dozens of cities have created their own networks -- a development that has alarmed some incumbent cable companies and telecoms. For instance, the North Carolina town of Wilson, decided in 2006 to build its own fiber optic network at a cost of around $26 million. Residents now have broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps both upstream and downstream, 81 cable channels and digital phone service -- all for around $100 a month. That's faster and cheaper than what the incumbent ISP offers.

"Banning these networks entirely would harm the public interest by depriving communities of a crucial avenue to broadband deployment, particularly in communities that commercial providers have neglected," the CCIA argued.

Think tanks and broadband advocacy groups

Free Press argues the FCC should take this opportunity to revisit every major regulatory decision made since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The group contends that premature deregulation of the broadband industry accounts for much of the dismal state of broadband.

Free Press is especially critical of the FCC's "foundational mistake" of classifying broadband as an "information service" rather than a telecommunications service. The FCC decision, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, meant that cable companies and telecoms no longer had to offer wholesale broadband to competitors - dealing "an immediate blow to third-party ISPs like Earthlink that relied on reasonable wholesale rates."

Many reformers, including the Knight Center of Digital Excellence, are asking the FCC to reaffirm its commitment to an open Internet - open for both competition and content. If the FCC obliges, many ISPs would need to reverse their practice of managing congestion by occasionally prioritizing traffic it deemed "time sensitive," while slowing down other, less urgent material.

The Knight Center of Digital Excellence is most interested in ensuring the broadband stimulus investment serve as the foundation for helping our communities and our nation be globally competitive while providing enhanced services to our citizens.

Our position is that each broadband stimulus project:

  • Be based on an open and neutral network
  • Serve a broad range of community stakeholders and applications
  • Enhance America's ability to compete on the global marketplace
  • Lessen the burden of government, healthcare and basic social services
  • Create a digital town square and effective e-Democracy mechanism
  • Deliver high-speed, high capacity, and low cost services

The FCC recently extended the reply comment deadline for its national broadband plan to July 21. There's still time for your opinions to be heard.

The future of America as a nation that fosters innovation and leads the global economy depends on the actions we take today.