FCC broadband planners to outline hurdles to universal access
There’s not enough spectrum for mobile broadband. A federal fund for phone service needs to be repurposed to include broadband. Consumers should be told the truth about the Internet access speeds they pay for.
These are the problems identified by the Federal Communications Commission as obstacles in its effort to blanket the country with high-speed Internet service.
Blair Levin is head of the FCC’s task force charged to come up with solutions before a February deadline. He will discuss those policy-related gaps at an agency meeting Wednesday that's scheduled to start at 10 a.m. But it won’t be easy to solve these issues, which are already being contested by companies who fear that new policies could negatively impact their business plans.
"Tomorrow is about saying these are problems we think are most important and by identifying those problems, we in a sense will kick off policy discussions on solutions," Levin said in an interview Tuesday. A discussion on proposed solutions will take place in December, he said.
Universal broadband access is a key technology goal of President Obama. As part of Congress’ agreement to include broadband grants and loans in its stimulus bill, it mandated the FCC to figure out what else it would take to hook up every home to the Web.
Levin said the agency is on track to meet its deadline. A plan will include solutions for getting non-users to adopt high-speed Internet service, even when its available to them .
One hurdle for users is a lack of transparency by providers, he said. Internet network operators such as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T will have to be a lot more transparent about the services, prices, and speeds they offer. And consumers should be able to get a clear sense of the options they have among those and other telecom, cable and satellite broadband providers before signing up for a service. Last September, Levin's team reported that Internet users are paying for speeds that lag what was advertised to them by as much as 50 percent.
"The other issue people really haven't focused on is transparency -- for the consumer on the machine and in the bill,” Levin said. “And not only about the consumer understanding performance, but how does that compare with the performance others are getting. This could involve some kind of ranking, for example."
One proposal being floated by public interest groups is label that would clearly outline broadband speeds, much like a food labels list nutritional content. (Check out a previous post on this idea.)
Levin has already said that over-the-air television spectrum should be recaptured from broadcasters and be converted for mobile broadband use.
That suggestion has ignited a battle between broadcasters and the wireless industry, which are lobbying for the valuable airwaves.
Broadcasters say they’ve already given up over-the-air television spectrum for the digital television transition earlier this year. And they say they want to use spectrum they are sitting on for future high-definition and mobile television services. (Check out this previous post on lobbying efforts by broadcasters.)
On Tuesday, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a letter to be careful of taking away spectrum from broadcasters.
“Further loss of spectrum by broadcasters may have an adverse effect upon consumers by limiting their choice in available broadcast television,” Dingell said in the letter.
Trade groups CTIA-The Wireless Association and the Consumer Electronics Association, meanwhile, called on the FCC to investigate how much spectrum broadcasters' future high-definition and mobile television services would require. The groups have warned that there is an urgent shortage of commercial spectrum available for wireless Internet use. That shortage is expected to grow worse as more consumers buy smart phones and netbooks.
“To respond adequately to the near-term shortage of available commercial wireless spectrum, the wireless broadband proponents believe that the commission should leave no stone unturned in its quest for identifying spectrum,” CTIA President Steve Largent and CEA President Gary Shapiro said in a letter to Genachowski and the other four commissioners.
Another controversial issue will be open-access policies. Public interest groups and smaller Internet service providers have argued that telecom and cable network operators should share access to their lines at leasing prices set by regulators. Bigger carriers like AT&T and Verizon have argued that such a practice would discourage investment to improve and expand networks.
The debate played out recently with a controversial broadband study by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. In it, author Yoachi Benkler said countries with open-access policies were most successful in rolling out broadband lines to users and creating more competition.
Photo: Blair Levin
November 17, 2009; 11:15 PM ET
Categories: Broadband , FCC
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