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Legacy Content / TECHNOLOGY

Cheat Sheet: Sticking Points In Broadband Plan

March 25, 2010

Every American should have broadband access -- that's an idea every faction in the telecom world seems to endorse. Making it so is another thing altogether.

While not everyone has shown their cards yet, major telecom players are sure to air grievances soon over Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski's decade-long plan to get more Americans online. Hearings scheduled on the Hill this week and panels featuring industry lobbyists will provide forums for venting.

In fact, with its aims to spark action from Congress and in the agencies, including heavy lifting at the FCC, the blueprint may also inadvertently pay many telecom lobbyists' salaries over the next few years in a sector that already spends exorbitantly on sway.

 

Here's a brief overview of a few parts of the plan that will provide fertile ground for disagreement as stakeholders speak up.

Broadcast Lobby Has Spectrum Gripes

The plan recommends that Congress expand the FCC's authority to offer carrots to stations to for surrendering their airwaves. The aim is to free up 300 MHz of spectrum and use it for broadband over the next five years because "scarcity of mobile broadband could mean higher prices, poor service quality [and] an inability for the U.S. to compete internationally," according to the document.

But broadcasters say they fear the plan could hold more sticks than carrots. They are "concerned" that "the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised," according to the National Association of Broadcasters. Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has echoed the NAB's concerns, CongressDaily reported. She noted that buyouts might be attractive to women and minority station owners, a prospect that could dilute their voice in the media landscape. These are the tip of the iceberg on spectrum gripes, but the incentives question has dominated the public battle so far.

Wireless companies, for their part, "are extremely pleased that spectrum is recognized as being pivotal to the National Broadband Plan," according to CTIA, the wireless association.

Internet Service Providers To Question Authority

Internet service providers oppose the idea of bolstering the FCC's regulatory power, an idea the plan flirts with but does not go so far as to recommend. Those who want a stronger FCC encourage reclassifying broadband service as a telecommunications service from its current status as an information service, providing the agency with more muscle on broadband issues. The plan says the FCC should "consider [this] and related questions as it moves forward" toward implementation. Groups in favor of reclassifying broadband include consumer advocates who want to see strict Net neutrality rules, including the Media Access Project and Public Knowledge, each of which touted this avenue in Net neutrality comments to the FCC.

Internet service providers worry that this move would give the agency greater authority to make "open Internet" rules aimed at reining in how ISPs manage traffic running over their networks. The proposed rules currently stand on shaky jurisdictional ground and could be further thwarted if a pending decision from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit comes down on the side of access providers, who hold that "a light touch has been fundamental to the Internet's success to date," as Comcast senior vice president Joe Waz argued recently on the company blog.

Rural Phone Companies Could Make Hay Out Of USF Shift

The plan proposes changes in the Universal Service Fund, which was established by the 1996 Telecommunications Act to wire underserved areas. The plan recommends transitioning the fund from providing phone service subsidies for low-income households to helping to defray the cost of broadband deployment and service in underserved locations. Expect pushback from the rural phone companies currently benefitting from those dollars, who will want a say in how quickly the transition occurs.

Measures To Spark Set-Top Box Competition Unappealing To Dominant Manufacturers

The plan recommends that the FCC take steps to spur competition in the market for television set-top boxes, noting that even though "significant competition and innovation exist for most classes of devices that interact with broadband networks," this one "has not faced substantial competition in recent years." In fact, it says that "two manufacturers control more than 90 percent of the U.S. market and have controlled comparable market shares for many years."

So expect some pushback from those two manufacturers, Motorola and Cisco. Meanwhile, measures to overhaul the set-top box market to make it easier to get online through the television could win praise from Internet companies such as Google. The plan notes that "without the ability to seamlessly integrate Internet video with traditional TV viewing, Internet video devices like Apple TV and Roku have struggled to gain a foothold in U.S. homes."

Action On 'Special Access' Proceedings Could Irk Providers

Companies who depend on "special access" broadband lines have continually urged the FCC to examine the rates incumbent telecommunications carriers charge companies who run data over their high-capacity networks. In its effort to spur policies that foster competition in the broadband market, the plan raises this thorny issue, which is sure to make special access providers such as AT&T and Verizon uncomfortable.

Special access lines provide high-capacity connections between such points as a cell tower and the phone network or a company data center and the broader Internet backbone, and their users claim that network owners overcharge competitors for access to these lines.

NoChokePoints, a coalition of special access users including Sprint, was pleased to see the plan speak to its signature issue. The plan says "special access circuits play a significant role in the availability and pricing of broadband service" and are "critical inputs in the provision of fixed and mobile broadband services in rural America," notes NoChokePoints. It also directs the FCC to act on current special access proceedings, although it does not make a clear stance on the topic.

ISPs May Be Uneasy With New Cybersecurity Measures

The plan says the FCC should increase the amount of information that ISPs must hand over in the event of potential cybersecurity attacks, noting that more data is critical to bolstering the agency's understanding of such threats, including "the causes and how to recover."

ISPs may not like the idea of giving up more information, but opposing cybersecurity measures presents a public relations challenge. So far, providers have striven to seem amenable on the cybersecurity front. Jim Bugel, AT&T's assistant vice president for public safety and homeland security, recently commended the commission "for making [cybersecurity] a top priority for the country," noting that his company "looks forward to working with [it] to address this critical issue."

New Privacy Regs Likely Unwelcome By Google, Others

Applications companies who depend on online ad dollars may not like the plan's foray into privacy questions. The plan notes that "consumers may have limited knowledge (if any) about how their personal data are collected and used" and that the current regulations are "patchwork" and "potentially confusing."

Short of an explicit recommendation to do so, the plan says revising the current Privacy Act "to give consumers more control over their personal data" is a step Congress could take to solve the problem. The suggestion echoes the concerns of consumer advocates, such as the Center for Digital Democracy, who have pushed for stricter rules on such advertising practices as online behavioral targeting.

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