FCC chairman champions wireless broadband access

Upcoming spectrum auction viewed as opportunity

Broadband has been deemed the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) top priority, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said at Microsoft offices in Mountain View, California on Thursday.

Appearing at a meeting of the Churchill Club, Martin touched on subjects ranging from broadband and the upcoming sale of frequencies in the 700MHz spectrum. He also delved into ideas on how to make cable TV more affordable and help spread digital TV.

Martin emphasized wireless broadband as a way to spread Internet access.

"I think broadband is the number one priority for the commission and the additional deployment of it," said Martin. Broadband technology can drive economic growth and impacts areas such as health care delivery and education, he said. The FCC has done work to try to foster additional infrastructure investment and some increased competition in broadband, he said.

The upcoming auction of wireless spectrum in the 700MHz band presents an opportunity for wireless technology to be a third broadband pipe beyond just DSL and cable Internet, Martin said.

"The 700MHz auction is a piece of spectrum that we're reclaiming because of the analog-to-digital transition for television, and that spectrum has the capability of delivering significant amounts of data and information at relatively low power," Martin said.

The FCC in bolstering broadband wants to ensure that network operators do not become the gatekeepers of innovation in the consumer space, he said.

Responding to a moderator's charge that the United States ranks 15th among industrial countries in broadband deployment, Martin said there are demographic challenges, such as having a population that is spread out. Martin said other countries have more densely populated areas that make it easier for them to hook up a larger segment of their populations.

The FCC wants to have multiple wireless providers and make sure wireless is not just a complementary service offered by one of the existing providers, Martin said. Also, the commission has imposed strict build-out requirements to make sure that the spectrum is not acquired and then kept unused as an anticompetitive measure, he said.

A portion of the spectrum also is being reserved for wireless broadband for public safety purposes, such as enabling police communications, said Martin.

There are no restrictions on the size of companies that can bid in the auction, although that has been suggested in a petition, Martin said. The FCC has not acted on the petition. Typically, the commission does not restrict the size of any company participating; what it does is try to break up some pieces into smaller blocks to give smaller providers a chance to compete, Martin said.

In the cable TV arena, Martin advocated empowering consumers to pick and choose which cable channels they want instead of having the cable companies make them pay for large volumes of channels never watched. This could cut down cable TV costs, which have nearly doubled since 1996, and could give parents more control over content in their homes. Cable companies like selling 104 channels to the average home even if only 15 are actually watched, Martin said.

But a cable TV operator in attendance, Lightstream president/CEO Paul Rhodes, said rates are not driven by the number of channels. Factors such as what competition and alternatives are available as well as infrastructure and local and regional issues drive rates, he said.

The issue "is not as simple as offering 100 channels and charging more for them," Rhodes said.

To boost digital cable conversions, Martin noted the Department of Commerce may offer vouchers worth about US$40 to persons who cannot afford to buy new televisions so that they can install set-top boxes accommodating digital signals. Analog broadcasting ends in February 2009.

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