Advice — Helpful Or Not — Comes To FCC

The cable industry last week continued to prescribe its version of the Hippocratic Oath for the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband plan: First, do no harm to private investment.

The agency’s broadband czar, Blair Levin, meanwhile, had his own message for industry and others weighing on the plan: First, give us something we can work with.

The FCC has until Feb. 17, 2010, to provide Congress with a plan for getting broadband to every home in the country, which means both making it available and finding a way to convince more folks to use it, given that the Internet is where entertainment; information on health, education and energy, commerce and government services; and civic participation are moving.

In comments filed last week in a notice of inquiry, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said that the FCC won’t be able to get broadband to every American, or meet any of Congress’ other goals, if its grand broadband plan discourages investment. It also should not get bogged down in the debate over an open Internet, the NCTA said.

That was the message in the second round of comments on that plan. The bottom lines for the cable group were deployment and adoption. Beyond that, the FCC should get out of the way and let the industry continue writing its broadband success story, the NCTA said.

The NCTA pointed out that the folks doing the broadband investing had already ponied up hundreds of billions of dollars for broadband, saying that was one of “many successes” that the FCC “must acknowledge.” Others included increasing speeds and a “thriving market” for applications.

As to proposals by some commenters that the FCC should adopt “significant new regulation” of the Internet, the NCTA said the agency must recognize that is the wrong approach if the commission wants to fill deployment gaps or promote adoption of broadband.

The NCTA gave a shout-out to the commission for taking an “unconventional” approach to the broadband plan, which includes a series of public workshops on its various aspects. “NCTA applauds the commission for taking a creative approach to such an important set of issues.” the group said in its filing.

Meanwhile, Levin, who is overseeing the creation of the FCC’s plan, had a reply comment of his own about the first round of suggestions: They were not much help.

On the eve of the second round of comments, Levin suggested that the first round of suggestions submitted by the public and industry on the FCC’s grand broadband plan were too much pie in the sky and not enough pie chart on the page. The comments lacked helpful data, analysis of trade-offs and “seriousness of purpose,” he said.

That characterization came during a panel discussion on the FCC’s broadband plan at the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council access to capital conference in Washington.

“There are a lot of different ideas, and they all sound great, but at the end of the day we have to make choices about where to spend what are frankly going to be very scarce dollars to drive that adoption,” the former FCC staffer said.

Levin and the FCC have a lot to do in the remaining 212 days until the Feb. 17 deadline Congress has set for the plan.

Levin said some people were asking for money as though just asking was sufficient.

“Look, I’ve got to say this: We are not going to be Santa Claus,” he said, pointing out that every incremental dollar will provide the same incremental value.

“People are not approaching this from the perspective of helping us analyze what the trade-offs are,” he said.

Former FCC Media Bureau chief Ken Ferree, now president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which filed comments on the plan, said he sympathized with Levin.

“I think the reality is that the commission often gets a lot of comments that are not particularly helpful — that’s the nature of public input,” Ferree said. “I think it is particularly asking a lot if you think you are going to get really targeted suggestions in response to [a notice of inquiry] that was as general as this one was. If you want specific answers, you had generally better ask specific questions.”

But Levin will have plenty of data and suggestions to work with, Ferree said.

“In the end, it’s not like Moses is going to come down from the mount with answers already carved in stone for you,” Ferree said. “This is going to be a really hard proceeding for the FCC and it will no doubt be quite a challenge for Blair and his team to find a way through all of the comments and suggestions to a constructive plan. But he is a really sharp guy and there are really good people still working at the agency, and I have every confidence that it can be done.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.