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Monday, 28 July 2008 07:47

Much furore over US Broadband policy

The US Government and US carriers are copping flack over future broadband offerings from all side, yet its FTTH deployment rate is the highest in the world.

The FTTH Councils of Europe. North America and Asia have released the latest of their twice yearly reports on FTTH uptake around the world, and it contains some interesting statistics. For example, in terms of the absolute number of services in operation, China, with 7.5 million services is now second only to Japan. However, its ranking by market penetration,11th, is also pretty impressive for such a populous nation.

This puts it only one notch behind the US - 10th by penetration with 2.9 percent - and ahead on absolute numbers. The US has 3.3 mill FTTH households, less than half the number in China. However, according to the FTTH Council, the US "continues to experience the highest rate of growth of any economy, doubling the number of connections year over year. This is due largely to an aggressive FTTH deployment by market leader Verizon and ongoing FTTH build out by more than 600 smaller providers across the country."

You would think that with such comments companies like Google (owner of YouTube) for whom subscriber broadband represents the arteries of its business would be full of praise for Verizon and its ilk. Far from it. Last week Google's VP of engineering and chief Internet evangelist (and renowned Internet elder statesman) Vint Cerf, in an interview with US Information Week, slammed US telcos for not investing in broadband network infrastructure. And he demanded that they support net neutrality. "It's like little kids in a tantrum," [they are saying] 'I'm not going to build this system unless you give me three scoops of ice cream and a pony.'...What I really want is a split in the regulatory framework for broadband Internet service. I want to see the reintroduction of common carriers' responsibilities."

The FTTH Council is similarly not happy with the way broadband is developing in the US, despite its comments about Verizon. And it is looking to the Government to take the lead. In a submission to the FCC's draft strategic plan for 2009 -2014   the Council said: "We believe the Commission should be more ambitious in seeking to promote the universal availability of not only broadband services but high-bandwidth, bi-directional broadband services."

The Council urged the FCC to adopt the goals outlined in the "100 Megabit" Congressional Resolutions introduced by Senator John D Rockefeller IV and US Representative Anna Eshoo that call for universal and affordable access by 2010 to networks transmitting bidirectionally, a 10Mbps and to 100Mbps megabits bidirectionally by 2015."

Full marks for specificity on bandwidth. However, it is all very well to talk about 'affordability', but it is not something that simply be conjured up. Volume plays a huge role as does the technology itself, and if those two fail to deliver the only solution is subsidies. At best Government might provide these for those disadvantaged by personal circumstances or by location, but universal subsidies to create affordability would be unlikely in the extreme. However governments can, and in various countries are doing much to try an ensure widely available high speed broadband services.

The FTTH Council has dismissed the US Government's proposed broadband goals are "too vague and tame" to meet the rapidly increasing consumer appetite for high-bandwidth video and data services. They are worse than that: they are a joke. Vague is being too kind. The FCC's Strategic Plan has set out six 'strategic goals', one of which is broadband of which it says: "All Americans should have affordable access to robust and reliable broadband products and services," and that: "Regulatory policies must promote technological neutrality, competition, investment, and innovation to ensure that broadband service providers have sufficient incentive to develop and offer such products and services."

It then lists a series of 'objectives' which fail the first test: they are no desired outcomes. They are simply statements of intent to take action to achieve outcomes, none which are precisely defined: the entire document is bereft of any number attached to any 'goal' at least in its broadband section.

Objective 1: The Commission shall promote the availability of broadband to all Americans.
Objective 2: The Commission shall define broadband in a technologically neutral fashion that includes any platform capable of transmitting high-bandwidth intensive services, applications, and content. Objective 3: The Commission shall ensure harmonized regulatory treatment of competing broadband services.
Objective 4: The Commission shall encourage and facilitate an environment that stimulates investment and innovation in broadband technologies and services.
Objective 5: The Commission shall continue to monitor the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability in order to provide ongoing national and international policy leadership and consumer education in the emerging broadband arena.

These 'strategic goals' are supported by a series of .performance goals'. For broadband these are stated simply as: Broaden the deployment of broadband technologies; Define broadband to include any platform capable of transmitting high-bandwidth intensive services, applications, and content; Ensure harmonised regulatory treatment of competing broadband services; Encourage and facilitate an environment that stimulates investment and innovation in broadband technologies and services.

The debate of 'net neutrality' has been raging for years in the US and Cerf's comment suggest it is nowhere near to dying down. And  the FCC's aim to adopt regulatory policies "promote technological neutrality, competition, investment, and innovation to ensure that broadband service providers have sufficient incentive to develop and offer such products and services" could well be unachievable because of its internal contradictions.

Juniper Networks' chairman Scott Kriens in a teleconference press interview last week said: "The network is a resources that is not free. Anything that isn’t free has to be partitioned in some way otherwise there is no way to pay for it. That doesn't mean you have to restrict access to the network in total, but there are people who will want to have premium access to that network and will be willing to pay for it, and help make it cheaper for everyone else."

Should be plenty to keep the FCC busy trying to achieve its strategic goal amidst these polarised viewpoints.

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