Broadband tug o'war

Industry wants regulatory spur; regulators say it's too soon

Industry is pushing the administration hard for a policy that encourages aggressive broadband deployment, while regulators say it's too early to write specific rules for a developing market.

Many prominent technology companies want the government to set a goal of ensuring that 100 million homes have access to Internet connections of at least 100 Mb/s by the end of 2010.

By the end of 2003, they want the government to push for 1.5 Mb/s access for 80% of homes, and for at least two providers offering speeds of 6 Mb/s to 50% of homes. By comparison, delivering high-definition television over the Internet requires 19.4 Mb/s. Today's "broadband" service, which is offered over cable modems and the phone companies' digital-subscriber-line (DSL) technology, runs anywhere from 250 to 900 kb/s.

Several tech company CEOs—including Dell's Michael Dell, Intel's Craig Barrett, Motorola's Chris Galvin and NCR's Lars Nyberg—spent two days last week meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), and other key members of Congress and the administration to promote their ideas. "We want a declaration of a broad and aggressive vision on broadband for the country," said Galvin.

Technology companies are pushing for this at least partly because they believe an established policy would persuade companies to invest in and roll out a high-speed infrastructure more quickly. That should encourage companies to develop broadband applications, which should give the faltering economy a boost, Galvin said.

The proposal, put forward by the Computer Systems Policy Project, has the same goal as one released two weeks ago by Tech Net, another group of tech company CEOs, including Cisco's and Intel's. One difference, though, is that CSPP's proposal strongly emphasizes wireless technologies.

CSPP suggests creating a federal interagency National Spectrum Management Policy Group to free 120 MHz of spectrum for broadband by 2004 and another 80% by 2010. It could mean the government will want to push broadcasters off their analog spectrum even more quickly in its search for spectrum for wireless broadband providers. Wireless broadband requires big chunks of spectrum; most of what is available in the U.S. already is being used.

Several government agencies are working to create a comprehensive broadband policy, said Nancy Victory, head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, during the Broadband Outlook 2002 conference in Washington last week. Agencies and offices working on the issue include the FCC, NTIA, the Department of Commerce, the National Economic Council, the Council of Economic Advisors, and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Industry and government agree the market should lead in setting broadband policy, with the government's only task to write rules to keep deployment on track. "Government's role is to remove the regulatory underbrush that impedes efficient capital investment," Victory said. Removing that underbrush, she added, means staying out of the way of the market's progress while standing ready to fine-tune with regulation if need be.

The government wants to avoid some policies, such as subsidizing industry, promoting one technology over another and overregulating, said Bob Pepper, chief of the FCC's office of plans and policy.