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Affordable internet critical to economic recovery

Monday, June 8, 2009

Consumer Groups on FCC Broadband Plan: Fast, Affordable Internet Critical to Economic Recovery, Growth
FCC should declare broadband a telecommunications service eligible for universal service fund support

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The national consumer organizations Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America today filed comments at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in response to the FCC’s call for public comments about its national broadband plan. The formal comments are available online here (PDF format).
“Access to broadband is not just a rural problem; it’s an affordability problem,” said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union. “You have rural areas that have no access to broadband services, plus you have communities of all sizes where broadband is available, but it’s too expensive for many people. When it comes to improving broadband access, the FCC has to address affordability as well as the underserved areas.”
Mark Cooper, Director of Research for Consumer Federation of America, said, “The FCC needs to craft a broadband plan that invests in high-speed fiber in the ‘middle mile’ of the network, and allows affordable, mobile wireless technologies to serve the ‘first mile’ of the network. Advanced wireless technologies are low in cost, and they can deliver broadband service and mobile computing that more people can afford.”
CU’s Kelsey added, “We’re living at a time when fast, affordable broadband service is essential to participate economically and engage socially. Broadband allows communities to reap the benefits of advanced emergency services, higher-education distance learning, telemedicine, and telecommuting. Without access to broadband, low-income and rural communities are cut off from new models of economic expansion and growth. The lack of access exacerbates our economic troubles and frustrates our attempts at recovery.”
CFA’s Cooper added: “The hands-off broadband policies of the past have failed to deliver competition or expand access. We need to change course and get back to basics. The FCC should define broadband as a Title II service, eligible for universal service support and protected by public-interest obligations. Our comments outline the legal and practical implications of making this determination, which is long overdue.”
Below is the executive summary of the comments submitted by CFA and CU:
Executive Summary
In these comments the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union demonstrate that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should focus its national broadband plan on the achievement of the central goal of the Communications Act – universal service. It should focus its attention on activating the policy tool it has to directly promote progress toward that goal. We are concerned that the broad and scatter shot nature of the Notice will carry the FCC into a morass of regulation and litigation that will slow progress down, when there is a clear need and clear authority to implement universal service policies that can have an immediate impact on solving the problem.
Changing course requires the FCC to admit that past policies have failed. The failure is evident in the fact that two-out of five of all U.S. households do not have broadband at home and the fact that the U.S. has fallen behind more than a dozen advanced industrial nations on broadband penetration, speed and price. The failure is also evident in the lack of vigorous competition in the communications sector, which is largely the result of bad policy choices in the last decade and a half. These include a lax attitude toward mergers, spectrum management and auction policies that have allowed the incumbent wireline carriers to dominate the wireless space; premature deregulation of middle mile (special access) services; and the failure to promote competition in the wireline market through wholesale access to bottleneck network elements.
While competition has failed as a means of promoting universal service, the Commission has failed to adjust its universal service funding to address universal broadband service:
• It failed to use the high cost fund to target broadband deployment,
• failed to use the lifeline and link-up programs to promote broadband connectivity, and
• failed to properly regulate middle mile charges, which increased the price of broadband.
The FCC must change course, if it is to advance the nation toward universal broadband service by adopting the following principles and specific measures.
The FCC must get back to basics and define broadband as Title II service eligible for universal service support as the means to ensure that all people of the United States have adequate facilities at charges that are just, reasonable, affordable and nondiscriminatory. The Commission should adopt an experiential approach to defining broadband, with any technology capable of supporting the range of activities in which broadband users engage being eligible for support with universal service funds.
Declaring broadband a Title II service eligible for universal service support would have profound implications.
• It would open broadband up to full universal service funding support on the supply-side (e.g. high cost) and the demand side (e.g. lifeline and link up).
• It would expand the base of the universal service fund, alleviating pressures on consumer telephone bills.
• It would also require the broadband network be operated in an open and nondiscriminatory manner and provide reasonably symmetric service, treating consumers as active speakers, rather than passive listeners.
Consistent with this approach, the Commission should conclude that the Section 230 language, which charges the Commission to “promote the continued development the Internet and…to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services,” begins with the preservation of the Internet principles of end-to-end openness and the cooperative solutions to challenges posed by increasing volumes and diversity of traffic. To preserve this essential characteristic the Commission must reject all efforts by network operators to impede the flow of data with private practices such as, but not limited to filtering, deep packet inspection, throttling, blocking, or other forms of degradation.
In order to accomplish this goal, the FCC should adopt a least cost, technology neutral approach to supporting broadband service with universal service funds.
Under least cost, technology neutral principles, CFA-CU believe the Commission should support middle mile fiber to unserved and under served areas, as well as educational and healthcare facilities, as well as other anchor institutions, in those areas. This robust middle mile infrastructure should be coupled with wireless technology to deliver affordable Internet connections to the homes and communities that remain unconnected to the global economy.
CFA-CU expect that advanced wireless approaches to mobile computing will be particularly successful as universal service technologies because of they are low cost, provide mobility, which is a vital aspect of 21st century communications, have adequate bandwidth to support the vast majority of applications in use today, and have the potential to evolve to higher levels of capacity and functionality.
The FCC must begin to repair the damage that has been done to the competitive fabric of the industry, where competition can work. It will have to focus its attention on pro-competitive policies to revive competition on the platform and expand competition in the wireless space by increasing the availability of unlicensed spectrum, enforce strict use it or lose it policies for licensed spectrum, especially in rural areas, and promote secondary markets for licensed spectrum. Because the cost of advanced wireless approach to broadband are so much lower than the cost of wireline approaches, and they provide the vital characteristic of mobility, the Commission should carve out a significant amount of spectrum for universal service applications.
In the universal service area the commission should refocus all aspects on delivering broadband, which is the “adequate facility” for communications in the 21st century.
David Butler, Consumers Union, 202-462-6262