Broadband Policy Show Moves to House

WASHINGTON — After several weeks of complex, policy wonk discussions of telecom reform in the U.S. Senate, it was show-and-tell day for broadband technology vendors Wednesday in the House of Representatives.

Sprint provided members of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet with cell phone Internet connections driven by high-speed wireless modems while Current Communications showed off its powerline modems. Verizon previewed its rollout of fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) services and Qualcomm walked lawmakers through its wireless broadband services.

The technology show was the first in a series of hearings planned by Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to consider the possibility of a major overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

“I . . . have made no secret of my belief that the legacy stovepipe regulation perpetuated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 needs to be revisited given the evolution in technology and the marketplace that was virtually unforeseen at the time of the Act’s creation,” Upton said.

He added that the hearing was designed to focus solely on the technology that is blurring the traditional lines between voice, video and data services. Subsequent hearings will tackle suggestions for regulating the converged market.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) pointed out that although the history of U.S. telecommunications law is based on scarcity of communications services controlled by dominant carriers, the proliferation of digital communications packages now being offered by telecoms, cable companies, wireless enterprises, satellite firms and other emerging technologies dramatically changes the regulatory landscape.

“As we look at all the products to be demonstrated today — all of them enabled by the Internet and driven by advances in the software and hardware markets — it is useful to remember these largely unregulated markets have a history of innovation that the highly regulated telephone market can’t match,” Cox said.

One of those dominant carriers, Verizon, told the panel it was “taking wireless into the broadband age” with a $1 billion commitment over the next two years. Adriana Rizzo, Verizon’s executive director of services, said the company’s 3G technology, known as EV-DO (Evolution, Data Optimized), “works a little like WiFi, but better. You don’t have to be within a few hundred feet of hotspot. You can use it on a train or in a cab.”

Rizzo said the service is already operating in Washington, D.C. and San Diego and by the end of the year, the service should be available to one-third of the Verizon Wireless network.

She also touted the Wednesday debut of an FTTP network in the Dallas suburb of Keller. A direct fiber to the home connection involves the use of glass, fiber-optic cable and associated electronics to replace traditional copper lines.

“Once deployed, the slowest broadband connection we’ll offer customers will be three times as fast as broadband speeds commonly available today,” she said, adding that Verizon plans to reach one million homes with the service by the end of the year and “potentially double the rate in 2005.”

Verizon’s EV-DO is technology developed by Qualcomm. Jonas Neihardt, vice president for Qualcomm’s Federal Government Affairs, said the EV-DO is a 3G evolution for CDMA operators and delivers data rates up to 2.4 Mbps but more
typically clocks in at 300-600 Kbps. The technology allows for “always on” use and can be utilized in fixed, portable or fully mobile modes.

Sprint impressed the lawmakers with handsets that allow for live television, streaming music and video and lived Major League Baseball audio broadcasts. The Sprint television service currently offers 18 channels including ABC
News, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox Sports and the Discovery Channel. Sprint prices the package at $9.99 a month and also offers an unlimited data plan. The baseball package also costs $9.99 a month.

“The technology we’re seeing today has one thing in common: Internet protocol is the underlying system running all of it,” Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said. “By offering voice and data to consumers using Internet protocol we’re seeing what I would call advanced Internet communications system service. Instead of a killer app, we have a killer service.”

Stearns said any examination of telecom reform should focus on the “division of services, not each individual application,” alluding to the current debate in Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about possible regulation of Internet telephone service based on Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

“With all the options for the consumers today and all the competing platforms that offer video and voice and everything else that can be converted into digital data, we might wonder if our laws can possibly keep up,” Cox said. “There’s much talk in Washington right now of Congress gearing up for a rewrite of America’s communications laws, but possibly from what we’ve learned today, retirement [of the Telecom Act] is a better option.”

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