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FCC Taking 'Common Sense' to Broadband

DALLAS -- Robert Pepper, the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) chief of plans and policy, has seen it all in the past 19 years.

He's seen the Internet grow from a fledgling academic exercise in the early 1980s, connecting eight supercomputers to transport data between military installations and universities around the U.S., to today's World Wide Web, where millions come online every day to chat, watch streaming video shows and swap music files.

Back then, the speed of Internet traffic was clocked at speeds measured in bauds, not the kilobauds most dial-up Web surfers enjoy today and take for granted. The advent of broadband Internet connectivity -- cable, digital subscriber line (DSL) and fixed wireless (Wi-fi) -- has made those first heady days of connecting two computers by copper telephone lines seem a relic of the past.

Pepper believes the many issues faced by Internet service providers (ISPs), incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) and competitive LECs, from the relative slow uptake of broadband services in the U.S. (by way of comparison, DSL is installed in 50 percent of S. Korean household, while in the U.S. only 10 percent have a broadband connection) and mud-slinging campaigns practiced by both sides to co-exist, should be approached with caution by the federal agency charged with policing Internet carriers.

Speaking at the ISP Business Expo here Tuesday, Pepper believes a studied, long-range approach to solving broadband concerns is in order.

"We want to take a common sense approach to broadband," he said. "I know to some that term sounds odd coming from a government agency, but that's exactly what we're trying to do."

The government agency has taken a long time coming up with a definition of what broadband actually means. According to Pepper, and most in the FCC, you can get a VHS-quality streaming video to come through fine using a 500Kbps connection and a DVD-quality connection at 750Kbps.

According to a January 2002 Neilsen/Net Rating report, broadband accounts for 50 percent of online time, compared to the more prevalent dial-up Internet services. That's up 67 percent, to 1.19 billion hours.

Drawing the line, however, between who should provide the service and who doesn't has come under fire lately.

The FCC has been in the news a lot recently, most notably and controversially with it's decision to make DSL and cable Internet services an information service, rather than a telecommunications service.

To ISPs, by changing that one word -- from information to telecom -- the FCC has managed to effectively wipe out the mandate established in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which ensured independent providers access to the telephone network.

Many ISPs fervently wished the FCC would interpret the cable companies coaxial-based network as the same as that provided by the Baby Bells, but the recent notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) put an end to that brief hope, a decision that's already resulted in several lawsuits for alleged First Amendment violations.

Scott McCollough, legal counsel for the Texas ISP Association, isn't surprised by the lawsuits and is similarly perplexed by a regulation (if enacted) that negates the charge placed on the agency by Congress.

"I'm having a hard time trying to figure out what the FCC is doing," he said. "What it looks like is they are setting up a duopoly with cable and DSL carriers and telling the independent providers to go away."

Pepper believes it's the insistence by providers for the government to fix problems in the telecommunications industry as part of the problem.

"It's easy for people to ask the government to make the hard choices, as in the case with our broadband rulemakings," Pepper said, with a tongue-in-cheek caveat. "But beware what you ask for, for the government will not only possibly get it wrong, but will likely get it wrong."