WASHINGTON, June 8, 2009 – Industry representatives and advocacy groups of all stripes flooded the Federal Communications Commission’s inbox Monday with a wide-ranging array of comments on the scope and direction of the agency’s role in crafting a national broadband plan.
The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed in February charges the commission with providing a report to Congress on a national strategy by February 17, 2009. The deadline for interested parties to file comments with the commission was midnight on Monday.
Facilities-based competition, rather than regulation should factor heavily into the commission’s plans, Progress and Freedom Foundation President Ken Ferree and Senior Fellow Barbara Esbin wrote. Market forces and not regulation, should determine the level of openness and “network intermediary functionality” available on any network, they added.
“There is no evidence of broad market failure justifying regulatory intervention in the majority of broadband markets,” Ferree and Esbin said in a related statement. “Providers should have maximum flexibility to experiment with service offerings, rates, terms, and conditions to encourage competition.” The primary regulatory goal of the FCC should be to ensure Americans can access at least one broadband provider with “broadband capability,” they said – especially in currently unserved areas.
Free State Foundation president Randolph May made a similar call for a light regulatory touch in a statement accompanying the organization’s comments. May cited Census Bureau statistics estimating private industry investment of $80 billion over the last year as evidence that the commission should not overreach and risk hurting the market. Broadband services are becoming both more affordable and more useful to consumers, May said: “Prices…have been declining, while speed has been steadily increasing.”
May dismissed outright the idea that municipalities should be able to operate their own broadband networks in the absence of private-sector investment. “These government entities do not have the expertise and experience required to build and operate modern broadband communications networks as efficiently and effectively as private sector companies,” he said.
Acting Chairman Michael Copps’ suggestion of adding a “fifth principle” to the commission’s Internet Policy Statement drew particular scorn from May, who called it “a return to old-fashioned common carrier regulation.”
But in a statement released Monday along with his organization’s comments, Free Press research director S. Derek Turner called for the commission to “chart a new direction for technology policy in this country.”
Commission policies should “promote robust broadband competition, guarantee strong net neutrality protections, and produce concrete data about the broadband market, he said.”
Turner stressed the need for a forward-looking policy: ‘”The [commission] must set a high bar for broadband,” he said. “Our digital future cannot rest on today’s slow, expensive standards.” And any national plan must look beyond mere availability of service and focus on the value of broadband to consumers in the form of increased speed, Turner said.
Open Internet Coalition president Markham Erikson dismissed statements that the current broadband market is open or innovative as based in myth, not fact. “Most households,” said Erikson, “still do not have access to more than one truly high-speed solution.”
Assumptions that deregulation would result in more consumer choice “have not proven to be accurate, he said.” The commission should therefore promote policies to “affirmatively promote competition and innovation,” he said.
Industry groups and providers also made their views known in comments and statements. Comcast executive vice president David Cohen used a posting on the company’s blog to call for a massive consumer education campaign to encourage the 92 percent of Americans that Cohen says currently have access to services to make use of them. Efforts to build a government-subsidized network would be a “”counterproductive waste of money,” he wrote.
The commission’s “first priority” should be to increase deployment of broadband in underserved areas “so that every American has the opportunity to purchase services and equipment capable of providing high-speed Internet access”, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said in its comments.
While NCTA called the $7.25 billion in funding provided by the Recovery Act a good start, it stressed the need for the commission to focus the national plan on improving the “business case” for investing in those unserved areas. To that end, the group suggested the commission take up the task of reforming the Universal Service Fund’s high-cost program.
Reaching underserved populations and areas through education and outreach should be the next priority in any national strategy, the NCTA comments said. Among the ways the commission can increase adoption is with policies promoting innovative and advanced technologies, including telehealth and distance learning. The association suggested such “demand-side” programs should be a “key part” of the national strategy going forward.