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Broadcast meets broadband

By Paul C. Trane  |  March 12, 2010

FOURTEEN YEARS after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Federal Communications Commission will release a National Broadband Plan next week that seeks to foster the power of so-called broadband networks. This goal is admirable, because broadband is widely viewed as the economic lifeline of tomorrow, with the power to improve an array of financial and employment activity in health care, education, homeland security, job training, even energy independence.

But the FCC faces a significant hurdle to achieving its goals — limited access to broadband networks for Americans who live in rural or low income areas. The best way to meet this challenge is the ubiquitous television and its companion cable or satellite set-top box.

The Telecommunications Act calls for the FCC to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans.’’ As recently as late February, the FCC estimated that 93 million Americans lack access to broadband networks due to the high cost of access. While building broadband networks to rural regions remains cost-prohibitive, an estimated 91 percent of American households access television via a cable or satellite provider set-top box.

If a person can order a Netflix movie online through an Xbox or a Wii console, it doesn’t take much to envision many Americans getting full access to the Internet through the set-top box and their television. For this reason, the FCC should use the release of the National Broadband Plan to commence — at a minimum — a Notice of Inquiry that examines how a single, uniform, carrier-neutral, set-top box can be developed to ensure access to the Internet via television. A Notice of Inquiry is a procedural process used by the FCC to obtain public and industry testimony prior to invoking an actual rulemaking procedure.

This Notice of Inquiry would allow the FCC to determine whether cable operators and satellite providers have stifled set-top innovation to protect their business interests. Any protective efforts by cable operators and satellite providers is a natural reaction to their outlay of billions of dollars for building and upgrading fiber-optic-rich networks or deployment of satellites.

Companies and their shareholders need to be assured that a reasonable return on their investment is possible, if not strengthened, by opening up broadband to those who currently don’t have Internet access. The FCC must look at incentives for cable operators and satellite providers — ranging from tax incentives to direct government funding -- to ensure that industry leaders are provided the carrot as well as the stick.

Business reality tells us that cable and satellite operators sell bundled packages of voice, cable television, and Internet access through single networks owned by each company. By mandating an operating standard and technology for set-top boxes, these devices could then be used for internet access whether a consumer was a subscriber of Comcast, Charter, Verizon, or Direct TV.

When it comes to the National Broadband Plan, the FCC has it right in one important regard. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first reform of the communications policy in over 60 years. Today, technology evolves at a much faster rate than policy. A new national agenda is needed to provide direction for Congress to enact laws that reflect today’s technology landscape. This necessary foundation for our economic future requires broadband access for all Americans.

Paul C. Trane is a principal at the consulting firm Telecommunications Insight Group in Boston.



The government affairs practice of Government Insight Group (GIG) was formed in 2005 when Paul Trane brought together personnel with over 30 years of experience to form what one publication called a “one stop shopping for lobbying and government affairs.”



Kerbey Harrington attorneys are industry leaders in telecommunications, regulatory policy, licensing and permitting, intellectual property, government relations, municipal law and real estate.



Telecommunications Insight Group (TIG), a telecommunications consulting firm, was founded in Massachusetts in 1997. TIG's success is based upon a simple formula: Ascertain the facts. Provide consulting advice. Implement the advice.