Broadband Plan: Fix CableCard mess now

Tue, 03/16/2010 - 8:40am
Brian Santo

The Federal Communications Commission delivered its National Broadband Plan (the full plan in PDF format) to Congress today. The plan is too big to be immediately parsed by anyone, but the Commission consulted widely with stakeholders, and initial expectations were optimistic.

“Obviously, the devil’s in the details,” said Bruce Mehlman, executive director of the Technology CEO Council, co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy under George W. Bush. 

“My read of what they’ll be releasing today is that the FCC recognizes it can’t achieve its broadband goals without the enthusiastic participation of infrastructure providers,” Mehlman said in an interview yesterday, before the full report was delivered.

Goals for the U.S. Broadband Plan
Goal 1: 

At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and actual upload speeds of at least 50 Mbps.

Goal 2:

The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.

Goal 3:

Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.

Goal 4:

Every community should have affordable access to at least 1 Gbps broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.

Goal 5:

To ensure the safety of Americans, every first responder should have access to a nationwide public safety wireless network.

Goal 6:

To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption.

Source: FCC

Some specific details that emerged from the plan include a short-term bandwidth goal of 4 Mbps actual download speeds (italics were the FCC’s); a long-term goal of 100 Mbps; and changing the Universal Service Fund (USF) plan and extending it to cover broadband, as well as telephony.

(The report notes that fiber and cable typically exceed 4 Mbps, while DSL and satellite speeds are typically lower).

The report regurgitates the consumer electronics industry’s demonstrably false complaint about a lack of innovation in set-top boxes. Perhaps more to the point, the report notes that set-tops are not retail products, and therefore not subject to retail market dynamics.

Later in the report, the FCC acknowledges the cable industry’s views on the subject – that CableCards create as many (if not more) problems as they solve. The FCC is not going to let CableCards go away, but it is suggesting expediting rules changes that make more sense (see page 52 of the report, link is above).

Achieving industry buy-in is one of the key issues, Mehlman agreed. He pointed out that the FCC plan explicitly recognizes that it was private industry that brought broadband to 200 million Americans in little more than a decade, and that industry innovation has continued unabated.

That said, there are problems that the industry has not addressed and doesn’t appear likely to address without incentive: Nearly 100 million Americans lack broadband at home today, and 14 million Americans do not have access to broadband even if they want it, the FCC report points out.

The government can provide those incentives with policy aimed at facilitating competition and encouraging private investment. The Commission points out that “policymakers, including the FCC, have a broad set of tools to protect and encourage competition in the markets that make up the broadband ecosystem: network services, devices, applications and content.”

The plan contains the following recommendations aimed at fostering competition:

  • Collect, analyze, benchmark and publish detailed, market-by-market information on broadband pricing and competition, which will likely have direct impact on competitive behavior (e.g., through benchmarking of pricing across geographic markets). This will also enable the FCC and other agencies to apply appropriate remedies when competition is lacking in specific geographies or market segments.
  • Develop disclosure requirements for broadband service providers to ensure consumers have the pricing and performance information they need to choose the best broadband offers in the market. Increased transparency will incent service providers to compete for customers on the basis of actual performance.
  • Undertake a comprehensive review of wholesale competition rules to help ensure competition in fixed and mobile broadband services.
  • Free up and allocate additional spectrum for unlicensed use, fostering ongoing innovation and competitive entry.
  • Update rules for wireless backhaul spectrum to increase capacity in urban areas and range in rural areas.
  • Expedite action on data roaming to determine how best to achieve wide, seamless and competitive coverage, encourage mobile broadband providers to construct and build networks, and promote entry and competition.
  • Change rules to ensure a competitive and innovative video set-top box market, to be consistent with Section 629 of the Telecommunications Act. The Act says that the FCC should ensure that its rules achieve a competitive market in video “navigation devices,” or set-top boxes – the devices consumers use to access much of the video they watch today.
  • Clarify the Congressional mandate, allowing state and local entities to provide broadband in their communities, and do so in ways that use public resources more effectively.
  • Clarify the relationship between users and their online profiles to enable continued innovation and competition in applications and ensure consumer privacy, including the obligations of firms collecting personal information to allow consumers to know what information is being collected, consent to such collection, correct it if necessary, and control disclosure of such personal information to third parties.

The American Cable Association was pleased to see several specific recommendations in the plan. The ACA said: “First, the plan calls for the creation of a new Universal Service Fund for wireline broadband service, called the Connect America Fund, that will be funded by reallocating billions of dollars from the USF’s existing voice service program.

4 Mbps-Capable Broadband in U.S.

“Second, the plan calls for new rules that ensure service providers, like small cable operators, can access infrastructure, such as poles, conduits and rights-of-way, efficiently and at fair prices, which is particularly important for smaller providers in rural areas. Third, the plan calls for expanding the Lifeline and Link-Up programs by allowing subsidies provided to low-income Americans to be used for broadband,” the ACA added.

NCTA President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow’s statement, also released prior to the release of the full report, was: “Chairman Genachowski and his staff working on the Omnibus Broadband Initiative should be commended for their efforts to draft a broadband ‘blueprint’ that surveys the technology landscape, that identifies industry progress to date and remaining policy challenges, and that suggests new ideas and reforms to advance our common goal of promoting investment, innovation and broadband networks that are second to none. As with any report of this size, variety and complexity, we expect that we will have points of agreement and disagreement on specific issues. But the report makes a significant contribution to the dialogue, and we remain committed to working with all members of the Commission in discussing new ideas and initiatives that will facilitate the ubiquitous availability and use of robust broadband networks.”

Others coming out in general favor of having a plan were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The Fiber To The Home Council.

More Broadband Direct 3/16/10:
•  CED Blog: Time Warner Cable shifts into D3 in Dallas
•  Broadband Plan: Fix CableCard mess now
•  Comcast to broadcast Masters in 3-D
•  FCC chairman's broadband goals, in his own words
•  BigBand doubles up on BMR capacity
•  RGB Networks debuts newest BNP
•  Over-the-air TV still has legs
•  Vonage back in full NYSE compliance
•  Flurry: Nexus One sales paltry compared to iPhone, Droid
•  Broadband Briefs for 03/16/10




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