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Policy Watch: Will the FCC Declare War?

In this week's roundup of cable policy hullabaloo: Pundits wonder to what lengths the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) might go to exert its authority over the Internet; the House gets ready to ponder the proposed cross-industry gateway; and the CableCARD regime gets mixed reviews.

  • Although Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) won the most recent battle over so-called network neutrality, there's speculation running rampant that it -- and other MSOs, for that matter -- should start preparing for a long, uncertain war, should the FCC indeed take the "nuclear" option of reclassifying Internet services as common-carrier, phone-like services. (See Net Neutrality Ruling: FCC Loses, Comcast Wins and Did Comcast Really Win?)

    The FCC has yet to tip its hand, so let's just say, in Wargames terms, that the situation is still fixed at DefCon 3. But should the FCC turn both keys and launch a Title II, carrier-level missile (today the FCC's authority over the Internet is under a Title I, information service designation), it could usher in regulations tied to rates and other terms and conditions. It would likely take several years to resolve all the fallout of such a move.

  • One person who is strongly against seeing the FCC seek out such a reclassification is former Commission Chairman Michael Powell, who told The Washington Post that the current classification is doing the job, and that the market, not the government, can do a better job expanding broadband.

    "Here’s the bottom line, to talk about going to Title II is talking about doing something relatively epic, novel and unprecedented. It doesn’t mean they [the FCC] couldn’t do it, but I might challenge it," he said, adding latter: "I think we are better off asking Congress for guidance."

  • The Comcast decision is being perceived as a setback to the FCC's authority over the Internet, but Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski claims it doesn’t alter the landscape much at all. The appeals court ruling "does not change our broadband policy goals, or the ultimate authority of the FCC to act to achieve those goals… The court did not question the FCC's goals; it merely invalidated one technical, legal mechanism for broadband policy chosen by prior commissions."

  • The court's decision likewise did not stop the Commission from releasing a "Broadband Action Agenda" last Thursday. Among the action items on the 2010 agenda for the proposed National Broadband Plan is to carve out an additional 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband use within the next 10 years, and to transform the Universal Service Fund to support broadband service. Here's the more colorful schedule the FCC has in mind in 2010.

  • One National Broadband Plan item that will get some attention this week is the FCC's coming proposal to develop a standardized, Web-capable gateway (or functional equivalent) to be used by cable operators, telcos, and satellite TV service operators alike. The FCC thinks such a device would help drive broadband adoption. (See FCC Floats 'Simple' Gateway, CableCARD Rules .)

    The House Communications Subcommittee is slated to conduct a hearing on the gateway matter this Thursday morning.

  • One guy who can't wait for some new CableCARD rules is gadget blogger Dave Zatz. After reporting a relatively pain-free reactivation of his Moxi HD-DVR in February, the experience went into the tank when he tried to get a CableCARD paired with his new TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) Premiere box, resulting in delays, hand-wringing, and much gnashing of teeth. (See TiVo 'Premiere' DVRs Go Retail.)

  • Speaking of TiVo, its experience with the CableCARD regime is well documented, complaining ad nauseum about installations, certification headaches, and tuning adapters (the devices needed to connect CableCARD-based TiVo boxes to cable's tier of switched digital video channels). (See TiVo Gives Cable Both Barrels .)

    Well, Ceton Corp. has a much different tale to tell, giving an exemplary description of its dealings with, and support from, CableLabs, MSOs, and the CableCARDs themselves. Ceton, maker of a new CableCARD tuner for Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) Windows Media Center PCs, expressed its view in an FCC filing last week, holding that the Commission should reaffirm its support for the CableCARD system and think twice about abandoning it. (See Ceton Delays CableCARD PC-TV Tuner and Ceton Pitches Cable Set-Top Alternative .)

    — Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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