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U.S. broadband program - too much like old times?


Government bureaucrats may not be the Internet's best friends


'Net Insider By Scott Bradner , Network World , 08/17/2009


If I sounded a bit positive in my last column about the state of part of the U.S. government bureaucracy, I will make up for that this week.


Since my last column, the Department of Commerce capitulated to the big carriers, the FCC is actively ignoring consumers, the carriers are calling the government's bluff and the FCC is asking if it should think about joining this century when it comes to Internet speeds.


In my last column I wondered if the FCC had suddenly become activist. Maybe it has in one area, but it does not seem like there has been any kind of a transformation. The FCC just issued a request for opinion as to "whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion" as required by section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The request notes that in each of the previous five Section 706 reports to Congress the FCC concluded that broadband was being deployed "in a reasonable and timely fashion." Very few other than some carriers and the FCC itself agreed with that assessment.


The new request notes that "these conclusions, however, rested on data increasingly criticized as lacking sufficient detail to support robust analyses." I can't disagree with that conclusion. (See "All's well with U.S. broadband deployment [says FCC]".)


The request notes that Congress got fed up with the FCC's relying on crappy data and told it to do better. (See "FCC: Consistent to a fault, but there is a (small) hope".) The FCC did ask better questions this time, but has yet to finish analyzing the data so we do not know if it will continue to play the role of Pollyanna.


The request notes that under the Recovery Act, the Department of Commerce is supposed to come up with "a comprehensive nationwide inventory map of existing broadband service capability and availability." Instead of fulfilling that requirement, the department instead capitulated to the big carriers and decided to ask for less information than it needs to follow intent of the law. For example, it will not ask what speeds customers actually get - something that most people think would be useful information.


The request asks a few questions, two of which do not actually need to be asked: "Is broadband available to all Americans?" and "Is the current level of broadband deployment reasonable and timely?" Unless you are actually Pollyanna, you already know the answer to these questions.


The FCC also asks permission to redefine broadband speed to a value that most of the developed world has been assuming for most of this century. They also want to know what the FCC can do to make things better. If they find a real answer to that, and then act on it, it would be a first -- for the FCC which has largely been irrelevant to the pace of broadband deployment.


The big carriers have decided not to take the broadband stimulus funds.


You know, the funds that were designed to bring broadband Internet to parts of the country that don't yet have it. The carriers seem to be trying to call the government's bluff in an attempt to rid themselves of the pesky rules that say they have to be fair to their customers.


Finally, the FCC seems to have neglected to invite anyone who cares about actual Internet users to its hearings.


All in all, not a good sign for the "us" vs. the "them" of the status quo.


Disclaimer: Cambridge and Boston residents may think of Harvard as "them," but there are a lot of us Cambridge and Boston residents who are part of that "them."


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