Corporations, consumers at odds on broadband policy
The nation’s largest broadband providers are in complete agreement with a national goal of 100 percent coverage of the U.S. population, as long as the federal government helps foot the bill to reach those who remain unserved and underserved, and not only adopts the minimum of new regulations but gets rid of some old regulations the industry regards as discouraging to investment in expanding networks.
Verizon, AT&T and the cable industry (through the National Cable & Telecommunications Association) have all filed their recommendations on how to institute a national broadband policy, in advance of the Monday deadline for responses to the Federal Communications Commission’s formal Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on the subject. They were all careful to vow conformance with network neutrality and privacy principles.
Consumer groups are also responding, and though they agree that securing access for the unserved and underserved is a priority, they are also concerned with the interplay of the level of competition, the affordability of broadband and available speeds, as well as the narrowing of the so-called digital divide – the divide between broadband usage between low-income citizens and those who are more affluent.
There’s general agreement that about 8 percent of the populace has little or no access to broadband. Verizon cited an estimate that roughly 40 percent of Americans do not adopt broadband when it is available to them. Meanwhile, the definition of who qualifies as “underserved” is not yet agreed on.
More network build-out is definitely required, service providers agree. They’ve been pretty much agreeing all along that the government should help underwrite the network expansions, while changing regulations they say represent a disincentive to invest in build-outs.
The NCTA, meanwhile, has been pointing out that service providers can make broadband more widely available, but there are other factors in the equation for increasing broadband penetration, namely the availability of computers and increasing the awareness of the benefits of broadband access.
To that end, the NCTA said in its filing: “The Commission should develop policies that increase the value and affordability of Internet access services. By way of example, programs that support an increase in computer ownership and training can make a huge difference given estimates that 19-26 percent of households currently do not own a computer.”
AT&T echoed the notion of the necessity of increasing demand for broadband. The company also decided to get all splashy, setting a target and timeline of 100 percent broadband by 2014. In terms of achieving that goal, the company talked policy but not technology.
AT&T and Verizon both are expected to have nearly ubiquitous national coverage of the U.S. with their respective wireless broadband Long Term Evolution networks by 2014 or so.
AT&T's senior vice president of federal regulatory, Robert Quinn, wrote, “Every proposal coming before the FCC should be filtered through one simple but critical lens: How will this action increase broadband adoption or expand broadband access for every American – in other words, how will it get us to 100 percent broadband?”
Companies providing service today are also in agreement on another point: no new competitors. The American Cable Association, representing smaller cable operators, has voiced this opinion fairly explicitly. Verizon was more oblique in its language but made the same point, saying, “Policymakers should ensure that any new policies maintain the healthy dynamics of the broadband marketplace that are currently creating and preserving jobs and leading to additional choices for consumers.”
Cable and the telcos were careful to specify that competition should be “facilities-based.” In other words, no repeat of the late ‘90s situation, where Congress, in attempting to create competition where none previously existed, forced the phone companies to open their networks and wholesale services to other companies who lacked their own physical plant.
The Internet Innovation Alliance – a group funded by many large communications service providers and equipment suppliers and boasting the participation of several non-profit organizations, many of which share an anti-tax philosophy – generally backed the cable and telco positions, with particular emphasis on minimal taxation and government interference.
While corporate concerns are interested in tweaking the status quo, some consumer groups – notably and perhaps most prominently Free Press – are calling for a complete re-evaluation of communications policy.
Free Press is calling for a “thorough review of the current state of the broadband market and the impact of past policies.” It advocates for more competition, regarding broadband as infrastructure, and strong network neutrality measures.
Meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights and public policy organizations is banding to submit a joint application for federal stimulus grant funds made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to support broadband deployment, mapping, adoption and support for public computer centers.
Participants include the National Urban League, National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Asian American Justice Center, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the think-tank Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
NCLR President and CEO Janet Murguia said, “Low-income people need to be first in line when it comes to this administration’s resources around broadband adoption.”
Rey Ramsey, president and CEO of One Economy Corp., said: “Our goal is to bring proven program models to local communities by, for example, training individuals at local Urban League chapters or LULAC tech centers so that our unique online content like the Public Internet Channel and youth technology service initiatives like Digital Connectors, which employs high school students to be digital ambassadors in their communities, will spread to more neighborhoods than we currently reach. In the end, the Coalition will move the meter so that more people of color are online and not in line.”