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FCC broadband plan heads for congressional scrutiny next week

Next week, Congress will weigh in with its view of the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband plan. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday, March 23 at 2:30 p.m. to review the plan. The House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet plans to hold its own hearing on the plan next Thursday, March 25.

The views of some lawmakers and regulators came out quickly once the plan was released, and not surprising those perspectives fell along party lines.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who was responsible for putting the broadband plan mandate into last year's stimulus act, hailed the plan as a foundation for implementing other technological improvements.

“The commission has given us a roadmap to a broadband future in which we consume less energy, improve the quality of health care through the use of technologies such as electronic medical records and ensure that every American has access to the tools they need to succeed,” Markey said.

Lawmakers next week are expected to question a variety of contentious issues raised by the plan, including the conversion of broadcast airwaves into mobile spectrum, data roaming on mobile networks, and line-sharing for small business access. Those provisions lie at the heart of concerns raised by some lawmakers and regulators that the plan could hamper the job creation or investment in broadband networks.

Republican FCC member Meredith Attwell Baker is a booster of mobile broadband expansion, but she warned against excessive intervention in markets as the agency pushes to allocate more airwaves for wireless networks.

“I would strongly oppose any efforts to dictate business plans or service offerings through regulatory mandate or inflexible allocations or service rules,” she said in her comments on the broadband plan Tuesday.

Baker also warned against overspending to support the plan. She agreed that the Universal Service Fund, which supports development of phone service in rural areas, should be reformed to help finance broadband deployment. But she said the fund shouldn’t grow it beyond its nearly $9 billion annual budget.

“It is our obligation to ensure that money is spent wisely to achieve the goals set out by Congress—but without distorting the market or breaking the bank,” said said.

Another Republican commissioner, Robert McDowell, cited eight critiques of the plan, saying a recommendation to open up television set-top boxes to more competition should be approached “gingerly.”

The agency recommended that by the end of 2012, cable and satellte TV customers should have access to new "gateway” devices that allow them to buy new boxes offering with Internet access from retailers. Currently, most subscribers rent their set top boxes – which are mostly without Internet access – directly from their cable and satellite service providers. That proposal could shift the market for paid television subscription services.

“This will not be easy technically and cable/satellite companies may object, but if it works, it could eventually create risk for pay TV subscribership levels from Internet TV,” said Concept Capital analyst Paul Gallant. “Such a gateway device also might increase churn among pay TV companies by letting customers keep their box but switch service providers.”

McDowell also warned against any move to to force large carriers to unbundle their networks and grant access to competing Internet service providers.

Colin Crowell, a senior adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, said the plan doesn’t suggest unbundling of networks for residential consumers.

By Cecilia Kang  |  March 17, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Broadband , FCC  
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I'd like to know whether the focus of this initiative will be wired service or wireless? Wired service still requires installing countless miles of cable or fiber, an especially expensive and cumbersome process in rural areas, and the user has to plug his computer into a socket maintained by the phone company or a cable provider. Wireless service, of course, simply requires that the user be within range of an antenna. Clearwire (originally Xohm) has provided city-wide wireless broadband service in Baltimore for more than two years and operates successfully in a number of other big cities, including Philadelphia, Seattle, Las Vegas, Dallas and Atlanta. (Xohm was scheduled to come to DC until their business plan changed.) At some point increasing download speeds stops mattering very much for most consumer purposes. It's the availability of service in the first place that's most important, and building antenna towers is a lot faster and more efficient than stringing wires. Just as cell phones have reduced the need for wired phone service, and DirectTV and DishTV are strong competitors to wired cable, wireless broadband could be a good way to make the internet accessible to everybody.

Posted by: tourist011 | March 17, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

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