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Wiley panel: Broadband adoption not just about telecom
Tim McElligott

Jun 20, 2007 11:46 AM

When Wiley Rein puts on an informational session, it covers all the angles. The Telecom Law group’s panel at NXTcomm on Tuesday was no exception as representatives from the FCC, carriers and various industry groups debated a national broadband issue: Whose job is it to promote and ensure ubiquitous broadband?

Jeff Campbell, director of technology and communications policy at Cisco Systems, said being No. 1 in broadband adoption should be our national goal. “There’s a bunch of industries enormously dependent on the network. It is what keeps this country going. It is the underlying technology that keeps our economy going,” he said. “We are strongest in areas that require the most intense IT usage, so it ought to matter.”

Robert Quinn, senior vice president of federal regulatory at AT&T, said the adoption rate in the U.S. should not be underrated, noting that the number of bits traversing the Internet today thanks to YouTube alone are more than we were traversing the entire Internet six years ago. “You don’t ever want to be satisfied, but we have to keep this in perspective. This is the fastest-growing technology ever introduced to the U.S.,” he said.

Looking for answers on how to promote broadband adoption and finding ways to deliver it to under-served areas, several panelists pointed to the state of Kentucky for its efforts in this area and discussed the state’s success and how it might apply to a recently proposed bill to develop address-based coverage (and non-coverage) maps and databases for broadband adoption.

The FCC is looking to measure, among other things, speed and penetration to identify market failures and areas that may require special attention and funding. Carriers currently are required to file reports on broadband subscription numbers, but the picture these paint is unclear.

“With the absence of information it is hard to deal with this problem,” Campbell said. “Mapping in Kentucky identified a lot of low hanging fruit next to other areas that were reachable. So people put money up because they could see where the gaps were and knew what it would take to get the job done.”

George Ford, chief economist and editorial advisory board member of the Phoenix Center, said part of the success in Kentucky was that is was a grass roots movement where people volunteered to drive around the state to create the maps. It might be difficult to duplicate that effort in a state like California.

Quinn added that Kentucky had another advantage. Because the effort was conducted as a public/private partnership, Kentuckians had confidence that the information in the database would be kept confidential.

Other, stickier, issues still inhibit broadband penetration—the stickiest being the reform of Universal Service Funding.

Quinn said the industry has to fix the [USF] distribution mechanism to ensure that “somehow, someway we will be able to get broadband on an economical basis to all consumers.”

Campbell said current USF is subsidizing old technology and that the industry should find ways to fund the building of new infrastructure. “Replicating the current system for broadband would be a huge disaster,” he said.

Tim Regan, senior vice president of global government affairs for Corning, said people tend to look for the silver bullet from the FCC. “There is a silver bullet. We already shot it.”

The silver bullet was deregulating the broadband space. “In our little part of the world in [fiber to the home], we have seen a 4300% increase in the number of homes passed. That would not have happened if not for the decision by the commission to deregulate that space.”

The effort now should be to remove cost from the effort. Regan suggests accelerating the depreciation of infrastructure.

Tom Navin, bureau chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, said the commission is working hard to reform USF policy and is actively promoting broadband penetration through programs such as the Rural Health Care Pilot Program, which gives funding to rural health care providers who work with service providers to deploy broadband for telemedicine purposes.

A broadband debate would not be complete without a nod to Net neutrality. However, for most of these panelists the issue is settled: Net neutrality is a ruse and has no merit, except perhaps in its ability to effect network investment.

“We just don’t believe dumb networks are a smart idea and Net neutrality proponents want dumb pipes. Fundamentally, that’s what this debate has turned into. But as we see usage of the Internet change and see content being generated by end users, the need for bandwidth will be enormous. [However], Wall Street doesn’t want you to make that investment, so efficiency is absolutely essential,” Quinn said. “In this country [we] will put a premium on the efficient use of bandwidth. So smart networks are a smart idea.”

Ford said Net neutrality is just something proponents attach their other needs to. “Everyone has their own little spin driving from their own personal interests and if something comes along better than Net neutrality that they can attach to them we’ll see them use that. It shows that Net neutrality has no bounds. It will continue as long as the phrase has leverage. It still has leverage, but it is declining,” Ford said.

However, its ability to take the incentive out of network investment remains. “You can’t apply Net neutrality to IPTV [for instance]. We are investing to bring a competitive service to market and if you tell me that neutrality will creep into video, there would be no business model for 25 Mb/s access,” Quinn said.

Campbell said Net neutrality would hurt the quality of experience for new services. It would result in managing network traffic as if it were street traffic with no traffic lights. “Onerous legislation here would inhibit quality. They underestimate how much individual experience on the network today is improved by traffic management,” he said.

Ford said even the champions of dumb networks admit that nobody would even build such networks. “So it is not even a question of whether or not it would effect investment,” he said.

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