Familiar Bedfellows Splitting Sheets Over Broadband
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The Great Broadband Battle of 2002 being waged in the halls of Congress and the conference rooms of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is beginning to factionalize tech lobbies that are usually the warmest of bedfellows. A new coalition of six trade associations is latest group to draw less than friendly fire from organizations that are usually allies on all things tech.
The High Tech Broadband Coalition (HTBC), which includes the Consumer Electronics Association and the Business Software Alliance, held a press conference Wednesday to announce it would urge the FCC to free the Baby Bells from the obligation to share new high-speed Internet connections with competitors. The FCC is currently considering just such a rule.
The HTBC shares FCC Chairman Michael Powell's position that the regional Bells are reluctant to invest in expensive digital subscriber lines, which provide the ''last mile'' of broadband connections to customers, if they have to share them. According to the HTBC it is this reluctance that is slowing broadband deployment in the U.S.
The coalition argues that the last mile connection is the essential gateway to more powerful chips and the software to exploit the new chip power that will drive broadband growth, which Washington politicians currently consider a prime key to economic recovery.
The HTBC announcement brought immediate criticism from the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a trade group of more than 500 IT firms.
"At 50,000 feet, we all support broadband deployment. However, the issue that the HTBC seeks to place before the Federal Communications Commission is whether to trade re-monopolization of the telephone markets for broadband investment by the Bell operating companies," said Harris N. Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based ITAA. "That's a deal that trades away consumer choice, investment, innovation, and a free market."
Miller said "vibrant competition rather than special accommodations for monopoly telephone companies" is in the best interest of broadband users, the telecommunications industry and the U.S. economy.
"Our concerns in this matter are twofold," Miller added. "Congress makes the laws. The 1996 Telecom Act requires monopoly telephone companies to open their facilities in exchange for access to new markets. Second, the Coalition is mistaken in suggesting that the Act gives the FCC forbearance authority. By suggesting the FCC use such a shaky legal authority, the Coalition risks creating considerable uncertainly to new broadband investment and the prospect of numerous, time-consuming challenges in court."
Powell and other leaders of the deregulation movement claim consumers will continue to have a wide range of choices but instead of those choices being provided by Internet service providers and independent competitive local exchange carriers sharing telephone lines, the choices will be among telephone, cable, satellite and wireless companies.
The ITAA, consumer groups and others opposed to the FCC rule changes counter that the issue is content, not deployment.
"The way to stimulate greater broadband uptake is through richer content and more applications," said Miller, noting that recent studies show that 70 percent of Americans have access to broadband but only 10 percent has actually chosen to take the service.