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FCC bureau chief: Cut broadband a break

Congress should consider giving the FCC more power to exempt new types of communications businesses from government regulation, the agency's top cable regulator said Thursday.

Companies may be reluctant to bring technological innovations to market if they fear the FCC will immediately demand that competitors receive access to communications networks, Deborah Lathen, FCC Cable Bureau Chief, said at the agency's monthly meeting. "We need to look for ways to incentivize innovation," she said. Current federal law gives the FCC broad authority to hold off, or "forbear," from regulation when it comes to telephone and other general telecommunications services, but the agency has much less leeway to forebear from cable regulation.

The distinction is important in the fight over open access for cable Internet services. A federal court decision last year has forced the FCC to examine whether cable Internet service is a telecommunications service or a cable service. If the agency decides the services fall under the cable rubric, the FCC would likely force cable companies to open their broadband lines to rival Internet providers, even though the agency maintains that high-speed Internet markets are too underdeveloped to warrant such strict regulation.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said Lathen's idea has merit but wasn't ready to whole-heartedly endorse the suggestion yesterday. "It takes courage," he said. "The FCC has to stand up and say we're not doing this any more, even when many industries may have a vested interest in preserving regulations that give them a competitive advantage." - Bill McConnell