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Broadband services

FCC Broadband Panel Starts on Shaky Ground

In his very first public meeting as FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai announced his intention to form a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) with the goal of drafting a "model code for broadband deployment." That BDAC group now officially exists, with Pai having named 29 members to the committee and scheduled the group's first meeting for April 21. (See FCC Names BDAC Members, Sets 1st Meeting.)

The BDAC has a tremendous agenda in front of it, with a goal of addressing barriers to broadband deployment and providing recommendations for accelerating Internet infrastructure rollouts at the state and local levels. Unfortunately, there are also several major challenges in the committee's way, any one of which could, in my opinion, deep-six the BDAC's efforts before the group even gets started.

First, there's the fact that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , not to mention the federal government as a whole, is currently in a mode of "light-touch" regulation. This hands-off approach makes sense when the market is doing an effective job of regulating itself, but when there are acknowledged challenges -- like those hampering the acceleration of broadband deployment -- a non-interference strategy can be actively harmful.

For example, pole attachment policies, which vary from locality to locality, are proving ruinous right now to many non-incumbent service providers. Some of these companies have fought back with one-touch make-ready (OTMR) proposals that are designed to speed up the process of attaching new telecom equipment to utility poles. However, those proposals are repeatedly challenged in court by incumbent ISPs, who want to maintain control over utility pole real estate. Without federal intervention, new market entrants have found themselves continuously bogged down in city-by-city fights. (See Broadband Has a Problem on the Pole.)

It's not always an issue of incumbent control either. Sometimes the biggest challenge to a new broadband deployment is simply figuring out how to address the administrative requirements of a local government. Consistency from municipality to municipality is non-existent, and there are things the federal government could do to help harmonize policies nationwide.

In a recent editorial piece published in The Washington Post, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Blair Levin and Internet industry analyst Larry Downes recommended that the federal government establish best practices that include having local governments provide a single point of contact to ISPs for negotiating access to city property and navigating local zoning processes. That recommendation strikes me as pretty low on the federal intervention scale. Perhaps it's something the BDAC would seriously consider in its deliberations.


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Getting the FCC to contemplate federal regulations as a method for accelerating broadband deployment is one issue. But even if the FCC is open-minded, the second major challenge the BDAC group faces is trying to force collaboration between two camps that are already well entrenched. Incumbent service providers have virtually zero incentive to work with new market entrants when they know that any ground they give will make it that much easier for rivals to steal away market share.

I watched this exact situation play out in 2015 with the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC), the group in charge of recommending new set-top rules. There were two factions at the start of DSTAC meetings, and at the end, instead of a single consensus set of recommendations, there were two proposals put forth representing those two factions. (See DSTAC: 2 Opposing Views on the Future of TV.)

I suspect tensions will run even higher in BDAC meetings, particularly with the recent leadership changes at the FCC, and a sense that people on all sides are getting ready to dig in their heels as we simultaneously head toward a review of net neutrality and the Open Internet Order. (See Trump & Consequences.)

Third and finally, while I think creating the BDAC is a great idea in theory, I worry about what the group can accomplish outside of an infrastructure bill put forth by Congress. Accelerating broadband deployment will depend a lot on how Congress decides to invest in broadband infrastructure, and those potential investments are still very unclear.

Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) noted recently that he doesn't believe there will end up being an infrastructure bill this year, in large part because of the many other priorities on the table for lawmakers. And even if there is, Schatz cautions that it's not likely to include significant new spending, but rather tax subsidies for lenders providing loans for infrastructure development. (See Sen. Schatz: No Big Infrastructure Bill Coming.)

Perhaps the BDAC group will be able to overcome all of the challenges ahead of it. Perhaps participants will be able to rise above their own differences for the sake of better nationwide broadband access. I'd like to think it's possible. But having watched Washington at work, I'm not optimistic.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

Duh! 4/11/2017 | 12:07:21 PM
Re: Yep... Congress can grant (and has granted) authority to the FCC to preempt state and local laws, under the Commerce Clause. Section 703(f) of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and Section 1 Subpart J of the FCC Rules appear to require pole owners to provide nondiscriminatory access to "any pole,duct, conduit, or right-of-way owned or controlled by it", unless they have a valid reason why not.

Whether FCC has authority, under Section 703, to require One-Touch Make-Ready or shot clocks is an argument best left to the lawyers. Particularly the ones at that table.  Whether they are prepared to use that authority is a political question; with the current chair and majority, it seems unlikely.
mendyk 4/10/2017 | 6:33:15 PM
Re: Yep... Any substantive change would require the federal government to supersede state and local authority. It's hard to imagine how this would happen, even if the legislative and executive branches were in favor of implementing more regulation. So, really, this panel isn't on shaky ground -- it's on no ground at all.
KBode 4/10/2017 | 3:56:32 PM
Re: Yep... Well they're anti-regulation when it suits them. They're perfectly happy to write state regulations that take regional decisions out of the hands of consumers, or regulations that hamstring competitors. 

I think you're going to see a lot of lip service paid to the digital divide. But there's really zero chance this administration does much of anything to address a lack of competition or prices, since large incumbent providers don't want that. 

Pretending the broadband sector is perfectly healthy is a longstanding, bipartisan tradition (only shaken up moderately during Wheeler's tenure). 
Duh! 4/10/2017 | 3:50:18 PM
Re: Yep... I am also underwhelmed.

Some of the members and leadership do not have an interest in wider competitive deployment. There are others who are at best peripherally tied to the problem. Yet others who should have a seat at the table, do not.

Model state and municipal codes will be helpful. However, if they are an attempt to punt these issues back to the states and municipalities in lieu of any federal oversight, they will be toothless. The names of the other working groups suggest a pre-disposition to see regulation as a major impediment to deployment.

I would be pleasantly surprised to see much of anything substantive come of this, especially as pertains to pole attachment rights, rents and make-ready.
brooks7 4/10/2017 | 1:06:28 PM
Re: Yep...  

Okay,  I would argue that our entire structure is not possible of creating a competitive environment.  We have (as I see it) 2 possibilities:

- Structural Separation

- Return to Rate of Return for Carriers

Our current Rate Cap environment, means the right CAPEX money for all carriers is ZERO.  They have no incentive to invest in Residential Broadband, especially if they will be forced to lease it out like they did the copper network. 

Municipal Networks have a checkered past with as many or more failing as working.  And those networks don't do welll in times of technological change. 

So, if we want to change all of this we need a new Telecom Act.  Which I don't see coming for another 40 or so years.  We also need to stop regulating cable differently.

 

Here is the thing....all of our kvetching about this ends up as about issue 146 on the general public's list of things. 

seven

 
KBode 4/10/2017 | 12:28:00 PM
Yep... "This hands-off approach makes sense when the market is doing an effective job of regulating itself, but when there are acknowledged challenges -- like those hampering the acceleration of broadband deployment -- a non-interference strategy can be actively harmful."

Nicely put.


Also not a great boon to policy: when the people in charge of dictating said policy are quite literally incapable of admitting the broadband market isn't truly competitive. Closing the digital divide is admirable, but not if you're intentionally ignoring the fact that limited competition causes significantly higher prices for the low income communities many leaders breathlessly profess to be helping.

 

There are countless folks in DC right now for whom ISP revenues truly are the top priority. Call me similarly skeptical that you build much of anything when that's your top -- and often only -- priority. 
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