Last month, the new Federal Communications Commission chairman, Kevin Martin, cited increased broadband deployment as his top goal for the agency—an agenda with which we wholeheartedly agree.
According to a recent FCC report, the number of U.S. broadband subscriber lines grew by 34 percent last year; nonetheless, the United States still ranks between 10th and 15th among all nations in broadband coverage.
We must do better, and were glad to see that President Bush recognizes this need. In a speech last year, he said, “We ought to have … universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007, and then we ought to make sure, as soon as possible thereafter, consumers have got plenty of choices when it comes to purchasing the broadband carrier.”
Therein lies the rub. In Bushs statement and in the FCC policies begun under former Chairman Michael Powell and continued under Martin, the White House is putting the cart before the horse. To achieve universal, affordable access, we must first have healthy competition, such as that which the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to deliver by carving out a space for Competitive Local Exchange Carriers, or CLECs, to offer, as Bush put it, “plenty of choices” across the existing lines of local monopoly carriers.
Instead, the FCC and the incumbent carriers have, respectively, been squeezing the CLECs between the rock of reduced regulatory relief and the hard place of arguably predatory pricing. And Martin, emboldened by the recent Supreme Court decision that upheld the FCCs authority to shield cable providers from sharing their lines, has signaled his intentions to continue squeezing.
As a result, weve seen the number of players in the broadband field dwindle, leaving a string of cable and Baby Bell duopolies that use service bundling and low first-year fees to hide the fact that broadband isnt getting significantly more affordable.
While we still view line sharing as the best current means to foster broadband service competition and innovation, the line-sharing ship appears to have already sailed, as it were, thanks to FCC policies.
However, other approaches exist—wireless, for example. We urge the FCC to be wary of the protectionist pleadings of established wired carriers opposing the spread of wireless last-mile broadband connectivity; we urge the Bush administration to fund accelerated development of so-called smart-radio technology, which will maximize the flexibility and efficiency of spectrum sharing with minimal interference.
Such actions would give the FCC and the Bush administration a chance to demonstrate that deregulation can, in fact, result in gains not just for entrenched monopoly players but also for consumers in the form of more choices and for new entrants in the form of more opportunities to play in the broadband service market.
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