The United States’ broadband policy is going to be technology-neutral, and will recognize that “relying on market forces alone will not bring robust and affordable broadband services to all parts of rural America.”
The Federal Communications Commission has just published “Bringing Broadband to Rural America” (available here). The report does not set policy – not due until 2010 – but it does state principles that the final policy will be based on.
Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps calls the report “a prelude to, and a building block for, the national broadband plan.” Unlike most government documents, this carries a byline – Copps’ byline. For a government document, the report is almost shockingly readable.
The “market forces” argument is likely to be controversial, but after getting input from many of the key providers of broadband in the U.S., Copps is firm. His conclusion is that “all levels of government should explore ways to help overcome the high costs of rural broadband deployment.”
The report states explicitly that policy will remain technology-neutral. It refers to DOCSIS 3.0, new wireless technologies (specifically Long Term Evolution and WiMAX), and to FTTP approaches adopted by more and more rural carriers and co-ops, as well as to broadband over powerline (BPL).
The report recommends tight coordination among federal organizations, state authorities, and – in an expansion of the list stakeholders – tribal governments and local communities. That coordination should extend to standardizing on definitions, specifically including the definition of “rural.”
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has been one of the strongest voices advocating for consideration of the demand side of the broadband supply and demand equation, and the FCC acknowledges that demand will be an important factor.
“Various factors may affect demand for broadband services in rural areas, including a lack of knowledge regarding the benefits of Internet access, lack of training on how to use a computer, socioeconomic and demographic factors, and affordability,” the report states. “To help stimulate and sustain demand for broadband services in rural areas, both public and private entities should consider developing consumer education and training initiatives, broadband affordability programs and other incentives to achieve sustainable penetration rates.”
Broadband policy will have to take into account a number of related issues in order to be successful, the FCC argued. These include universal service reform (which Copps singled out as a priority), network openness, spectrum access, middle mile/special access reform, intercarrier compensation, access to poles and rights of way, tower siting and video programming proceedings.
The American Cable Association jumped in with praise: “ACA agrees that a rural broadband strategy must address middle-mile connectivity. Many small- and medium-size broadband providers can’t offer their rural customers high-speed Internet access at reasonable prices when the Internet backbone service providers are overcharging them for their low-capacity, middle-mile pipes.”
The report has no specific mention of retransmission consent, but ACA President and CEO Matthew Polka took the opportunity of an oblique mention of “video program proceedings” to comment on one of his organization’s biggest frustrations.
Polka said: “ACA also agrees that video programming issues are germane to a discussion about rural broadband deployment. When small- and medium-size operators in rural areas are forced by broadcasters to pay higher retransmission consent fees than larger operators in cities, and to carry unwanted channels by the media conglomerates, consumers in rural America pay the price because their cable provider has less money and bandwidth to devote to high-speed Internet access.”