Providers register mixed reactions to FCC's broadband plan

Representatives of large broadband providers both question and praise portions of the commission's road map

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's national broadband plan released last week contains many good ideas, but it also leaves the door open to new regulations of broadband providers, representatives of providers said Tuesday.

The broadband plan recognizes that private investment will largely pay for the broadband networks of the future, including the goal of bringing 100Mbps of broadband service to 100 million U.S. homes by 2020, said James Cicconi, senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs at AT&T.

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But the plan does not, in an outright manner, reject calls from some consumer-focused groups to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers, subject to a broad set of regulations from the FCC, he said during a forum on the broadband plan Tuesday.

FCC officials have predicted the plan will lead to dozens of rulemaking proceedings at the agency, an "odd way" to encourage private investment, Cicconi said.

The plan recognizes that its goals are "best and most likely to be carried out by the private sector continuing to do what it's doing," he said. "The thing I like the least is the fact that it tees up a plethora of rulemakings ... and it fails to close the door on a bunch of other issues that create a great deal of uncertainty that cuts against the very investment they say they want."

The facts in the plan show a major "success story" for broadband deployment in the United States, but the tone of the plan suggests that the FCC believes more government intervention is needed, added Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a trade group representing cable operators.

Nevertheless, Cicconi, McSlarrow, and representatives of Verizon Communications and Intel largely praised the 376-page plan [PDF] during a forum Tuesday, particularly the section of the document that focuses on freeing up 500MHz of new spectrum over the next 10 years for mobile broadband.

"Spectrum is the mother's milk of wireless," said Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications. "The recommendations for spectrum will be highly debated but this, I think, gets the ball moving in a significant way in the development of additional spectrum resources for wireless."

The broadband plan identifies available spectrum that can be auctioned by the FCC, but also seeks to recover 120MHz of spectrum from U.S. television broadcasters, a controversial recommendation. Broadcasters would keep or share in the spectrum auction proceeds in exchange for voluntarily giving up unused spectrum, but the National Association of Broadcasters has been cool to the idea.

Despite general praise for the plan, Tauke and Cicconi both said they have concerns about potential regulations resulting from the plan.

Tauke focused on just one area -- the plan's recommendation that the FCC seek "balance" in allowing incumbent broadband providers to retire cooper networks after laying fiber. Incumbent telecom carriers are required to share parts of their copper networks with competitors.

"Competitive carriers are currently using copper to provide [small businesses] with a competitive alternative for broadband services," the plan says. "Retirement of these copper facilities affects both existing broadband services and the ability of competitors to offer new services."

But incumbent carriers need to be able to retire the copper networks, Tauke argued. Creating new rules slowing the retirement of copper networks "certainly is a hindrance to investment," Tauke said. "One of the key elements to any business plan for putting in fiber to replace copper is that we can pull out the copper network so that we don't have to maintain two networks."

Earlier during Tuesdays' forum, Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC's Omnibus Broadband Initiative, defended the plan, saying it strikes the right balance between vision and pragmatic goals. While the FCC recognizes that private investment will largely build broadband networks, some government programs to encourage broadband deployment and adoption weren't working as well as they could, he said.

"We wanted to aspire high, but find a practical road," Levin said. "A bold document with no chance of being implemented would not help improve the state of broadband in America."

The plan, while not perfect, "got the outline right," added Peter Pitsch, associate general counsel and executive director of communications policy for Intel. The big challenge for the FCC will be execution of the plan, he said.

"The [FCC] chairman's office should say, 'Here are five things worth getting done in the next year, and if we get three done, we've succeeded,'" he said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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