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Major U.S. ISPs Want Low-End Broadband Standards

Government and Broadband

With all the responses in, the Federal Communications Commission's call for comments on how it should define the term "broadband" has again highlighted the deep fissures that mark the policy debate.

The nation's largest ISPs have asked the commission to set a relatively low baseline standard for broadband speed, in stark contrast to the recommendations of some advocacy groups.

The FCC opened the inquiry last month as it works to develop a national broadband strategy and advise the agencies administering the $7.2 billion Congress allocated for broadband projects in the economic stimulus package.

AT&T (NYSE: T) argued in its filing that the FCC "must be guided by the very specific goals Congress expressed in the Recovery Act" in this exercise, calling for low baseline broadband standards that would help deliver access to remote and underserved areas.

The media-reform group Free Press, an outspoken Net neutrality advocate, appealed to the FCC to think beyond speed and include open-network management guidelines in its consideration of the term broadband.

The group did offer a benchmark, calling for broadband connections to be defined as those offering a minimum guaranteed speed of 5 Mbps downstream and up, even during times of peak usage.

Similarly, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) suggested that a symmetric connection of 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps might be a "sound initial target." In its filing, the search giant also framed the issue of speed in the context of usage and deployment, urging open, unfettered access to the Internet through the broadband infrastructure, and recommended that the commission periodically reassess its speed benchmarks.

The commission heard a much different set of suggestions from Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) the nation's largest cable provider.

Comcast suggested the commission set a two-way connection at 256 Kbps as its standard for basic broadband service, which would bring the agency in line with the minimal definition offered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international economic forum whose broadband data is often cited in policy discussions.

The firm proposed a tiered framework where "current-generation" broadband speeds would be defined as 600 Kbps downstream and 500 Kbps up. The benchmark for next-generation speeds would be set at 10 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up.

Verizon (in a joint filing on behalf of Verizon Communications and Verizon Wireless) recommended that the commission adopt "aggressive long-term targets," such as 50 Mbps for fixed broadband and 5 Mbps for mobile services.

But in the meantime, Verizon (NYSE: VZ) advised the commission to hold to its broadband standard of 768 Kbps down stream and 200 Kbps up.

Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), the nation's second-largest cable provider, echoed that recommendation.

When the FCC issued its public notice on a broadband definition, it acknowledged the challenges of pinning down real connection speeds.

"In most cases the 'advertised' throughput speed has a tenuous relation with the actually delivered speed, which will actually vary over time, depending on the application, the server, and many other factors," Carlos Kirjner, the chief broadband adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, noted at the time.

[cob:Special_Report]Comcast argued that the commission use provisioned speed as its barometer. Provisioned speed, a function of a user's modem configuration and the capacity of the last mile of the ISP's network, refers to the speed that customers can reasonably expect on a consistent basis.

At the same time, the cable provider advised the FCC not to get too hung up on definitions as it races to deliver its broadband roadmap to Congress next year.

"The Commission need not squander much time between now and next February in search of the perfect metric, as this is something that can be revisited more thoroughly once the Plan has been delivered," Comcast said.

But beyond the question of connection speed, the FCC will have to balance the calls of groups like Free Press and Google, which would like to see tough non-discrimination requirements, with the big ISPs, who argue that the commission should stick to the task at hand, namely delivering baseline broadband Internet service to as many people as possible.

AT&T argued that the commission should be more concerned with ensuring that all residents can do basic things like browse the Web and send and receive e-mails before it worries about universal access to high-bandwidth services like streaming video and VoIP.

Free Press would beg to differ, urging the commission to adopt a "future-proof" definition of broadband.

AT&T did not propose a specific connection speed, but cautioned that "setting [the] baseline too high would thwart Congress' intent to ensure universal availability and adoption of broadband services."

"There are a host of aspirational broadband services that are beginning to emerge in this country, as well as myriad sophisticated applications involving streaming video, real-time voice and the like. All are no doubt 'broadband' services," AT&T said. "But for Americans who today have no terrestrial broadband service at all, the pressing concern is not the ability to engage in real-time, two-way gaming, but obtaining meaningful access to the Internet’s resources and to reliable email communications and other basic tools that most of the country has come to expect as a given. Fulfilling that need is the appropriate national priority at this time."