NCTA: Steady as Broadband Goes

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The cable industry's message to the Federal Communications Commission: The deployment of broadband is going along well, thank you, so a light regulatory hand, please, except to keep utility companies in line.

The FCC is required from time to time to review the state of broadband deployment, which is to say the degree to which the populace has access to high-speed Internet and other advanced services.

This is one of those times (actually the fourth time since the 1996 Telcom Act mandated the check-up), and according to a filing by the cable industry, its deployment, driven by the 1996 act's deregulation, has continued at a "reasonable and timely" pace.

In fact, by the end of the year, cable modem service will be available to 91% of all homes passed by cable, according to a National Cable & Telecommunications Association filing with the commission. Cable passes 95% of all occupied homes, Says NCTA (and probably some abandoned ones, too, but who's counting).

The bad news is that barely 50% of the country buys any Internet access service at all, and only a third of those buy broadband access, so adoption is seriously trailing deployment. Still, NCTA says, those numbers are improving, citing a Morgan Stanley projection that 61.4% of households will have Internet access by year-end 2005, and about half of those will be broadband users by then.

With adoption trailing deployment, NCTA is asking the FCC to continue to use 200 Kbps service (currently, "high-speed" is defined as 200 Kbps) as the benchmark for qualifying has having rolled out broadband.

The commission is opening up a separate inquiry into services with greater than 200 Kbps data delivery speeds, such as VoIP (telephone-over-Internet service), looking to collect that data as part of the next periodic review.

NCTA wants the commission to maintain its policy of "vigilant restraint" when it came to regulating the rollout, which, technically, means don't impose rules mandating nondiscriminatory access to unaffiliated Internet service providers, and essentially means: Leave us alone, we're doing fine. In fact, NCTA characterizes the rollout as "one of the greatest success stories" of the 1996 act.

"There is no better way to fulfill that mandate than to continue to keep federal, state and local regulation from slowing down and interfering with the demonstrated success of the marketplace."

Mark Cooper, of the Consumer Federation of America, disagrees: "If it's a success, there is no reason to forbear regulation of nondiscrimination of interconnection," he says. "It's a success compared to what? There are lots of people concerned about the higher levels of penetration in Japan, Korea and Canada."

NCTA did say that it would be unable to reach some far-flung rural areas without technological or economic changes.

While asking for a continued light hand in most regulatory departments, NCTA did ask the commission to wield a big stick to keep utility companies from engaging in anticompetitive practices when it comes to their control of the "poles, ducts and conduits" that are the broadband rights-of way.

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