The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) shipped off to Congress a 376-page National Broadband Plan earlier today, and yet some of the most pointed commentary from the Commissioners at their meeting was about a part of the plan that was given relatively little emphasis.
It almost sounds silly to say there was too little discussion of a topic in a report that long and that comprehensive. Just looking at the table of contents, and all of the recommendations for moving the country ahead into the era in which high-speed Internet is the norm and not the exception. After all, this is a strategic outline for future actions, and there are lots of future actions in the report to contemplate on items big and small. Nothing will happen immediately.
Some of the changes that could occur as a result of the plan are ones that have been contemplated for a while, such as allowing billions of dollars that now go to support universal telephone service in areas with high costs to provide that service to be redirected to providing broadband Internet service instead. Some of the changes will help over time to create new policies, such as providing for better information on where broadband service is available.
And yet, commissioners still wanted to address the subject of competition. A lot of the language in the report paid tribute to the notion of consumers having more choice in broadband providers. “Competition is crucial for promoting consumer welfare and spurring innovation and investment in broadband access net- works. Competition provides consumers the benefits of choice, better service and lower prices,” the report said.
The report also observed, “Given that approximately 96% of the population has at most two wireline providers, there are reasons to be concerned about wireline broadband competition in the United States. Whether sufficient competition exists is unclear and, even if such competition presently exists, it is surely fragile. To ensure that the right policies are put in place so that the broadband ecosystem to have an ongoing, data-driven evaluation of the state of competition.”
And that was the rub for the Commissioners – how to have that further evaluation. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was most direct in her comments, saying: “If we are serious about connecting America; about leading the world technologically and economically; about ensuring that all consumers, no matter their income level or geographic location, have sufficient access to on-line services, then we should be very concerned about the competitive state of broadband service.” The evidence in the plan suggests that in two years, only 15 percent of households will have what Clyburn called the ‘luxury’ of two providers offering highest speeds, and another 75 percent will have one, leaving the rest of the population without any.
Clyburn laid down a marker: “The Commission must stand ready to act where competition is lacking and be willing to use all available tools to protect consumers and to inject meaningful competition into the marketplace. Only then will consumers benefit from affordable prices, high-quality service, and innovative applications and services that improve the quality of their lives.”
Commissioner Robert McDowell set down his own markers, saying broadband had flourished without regulation and warning against putting broadband into the same regulatory category as old-fashioned telephone service. “Not only do I doubt that such a reclassification would survive appeal, I don’t see how foisting a regulatory framework first devised in the 19th Century would help a competitive 21st Century marketplace continue to thrive,” McDowell said, also warning against instituting regulations requiring carriers to allow others to buy access to their networks. And, as usual, he warned against going ahead with a Net Neutrality proceeding.
The National Broadband Plan took no position on how the competition necessary to improve consumer welfare should develop, at least in the wired world. It sees competition developing in the wireless world with the release of more spectrum. That will only occur if the large incumbents who now lease most of the spectrum are kept away, to let others play.
As good as the National Broadband Plan is, it would have been better had it met the competition issues head on. Their large absence from the 376 pages did not stop the discussion of how to achieve competition. In fact, their absence only highlighted their absence as the Commission tip-toed up to the line, then backed off.
But as McDowell said, there will be plenty of time to engage in that debate.