FCC: Openness, Video Access, Important To Rural Broadband

Filed at 12:35 on May 27, 2009

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps has released the FCC's rural broadband report, telling Congress that adopting a fifth principle of network nondiscrimination should be part of a rural broadband plan, and that lack of access to video programming could affect rural rollouts.

The other four are what he called "the basic rights of Internet end-users to access lawful content, run applications and services, connect devices to the network, and enjoy the benefits of competition."

The report was due to Congress last week in compliance with a directive in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Copps, whose name was on the report, which was written in the first person, pointed out that he had long pushed for the fifth principle, but said it was particularly important to rural broadband because "a citizen may have only one option for broadband access."

Copps made it clear he thought the rural plan must insure network openness. He said ubiquitous broadband would not happen "if consumers are constrained by careful bundling, packaging and
discriminatory practices that whittle away the end-to-end structure of the public Internet."

Copps also tied the rural strategy to another key concern of his, access to video programming. He called program access an important element in the decision to buy broadband, concluding that "video programming could become an issue that has an impact on the potential competitiveness of the service offerings of rural broadband providers and thus on rural broadband deployment."

Copps said the rural report would be a "building block" in the FCC's larger effort to draft a national broadband rollout plan, which it must do by next February at Congress's direction. Copps said that plan will provide "in greater detail and on a vastly more complete record...the steps the nation must take to achieve its broadband goals."

The bulk of the report dealt with coordinating the efforts of various government agencies, collecting better data and broadband mapping, and other broad brush strokes. It touched on a host of issues including pole-attachment rates and Universal Service reforms, but essentially logged them as factors in the equation. For example, on attachments, Copps said, "Timely and reasonably priced access to poles and rights of way is critical to the build-out of broadband infrastructure in rural areas," and he renewed his call for universal service reform.

He also said that its effect on rural broadband should be a "critical factor" in evaluating any reform
of inter-carrier compensation.

"This isn't a report that just talks about interagency coordination," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, commenting on its release. "It has already served as a catalyst for encouraging greater discussion across the federal government that is unprecedented in my time on the Commission. This Administration - from President Obama on down - has clearly begun to focus attention across the many agencies involved on the mission of promoting broadband to rural America."

Adelstein has a rooting interest in the report beyond his role as FCC commissioner. He has been nominated to head up the Ag Department's Rural Utilities Service, which hands out broadband grants and loans, inlcuding $2.5 billion in economic stimulus money, likely beginning sometime this fall.

American Cable Association President Matt Polka applauded the report: "ACA agrees that a rural broadband strategy must address middle-mile connectivity," he said Wednesday. "Many small and medium-sized broadband providers can't offer their rural customers high-speed Internet access at reasonable prices when the Internet backbone service providers are overcharging them for their low-capacity, middle-mile pipes.

"ACA also agrees that video programming issues are germane to a discussion about rural broadband deployment. When small and medium-sized operators in rural areas are forced by broadcasters to pay higher retransmission consent fees than larger operators in cities, and to carry unwanted channels by the media conglomerates, consumers in rural America pay the price because their cable provider has less money and bandwidth to devote to high-speed Internet access."

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.