Groups call for 'bold' national broadband plan

When U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski called this week for 100 million U.S. homes to have 100M bps (bits per second) broadband service by 2020, he wasn't quite aiming high enough, said a coalition of digital rights and consumer groups.

The U.S. will have close to 130 million households by 2020, and the FCC shouldn't leave 30 million homes with inferior broadband service, said Mark Cooper, research director at the Consumer Federation of America. Genachowski's "heart and head are in the right place," but the FCC should aim for 90 percent of all U.S. homes to have 100Mbps connections by 2020, Cooper said during a Wednesday press conference.

The FCC's national broadband plan, due out in a month, needs to include "bold" initiatives, members of the Media and Democracy Coalition said.

"I know that Chairman Genachowski's vision of America is not a place where 100 million households have 100 megabits of broadband and 30 million households have zero megabits," Cooper added

Coalition members, including Public Knowledge, the New America Foundation and Free Press, called on the FCC's national broadband plan to set the goal of broadband penetration in the U.S. equaling home telephone penetration by 2020.

In addition, the FCC should set a goal of using U.S. policies to increase competition among broadband providers and implement a new way to measure broadband speeds and availability across the U.S. by the end of the year, the groups said. The FCC should also establish new broadband customer protections within 18 months, coalition members said.

Broadband customers should be able to know the speeds they're getting on an ongoing basis, and providers should explain all the charges on their bills, said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union.

"You shouldn't need an accounting degree to understand your monthly bill," he said. Right now, broadband providers can change their terms of service "at any time, without any notice to the public," he added.

The groups also called on the FCC to move forward with its open Internet, or network neutrality, proceeding. The FCC needs to prohibit broadband providers from selectively discriminating against Web content or applications, and it should guarantee that customers can move their devices between mobile networks, said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press.

Free speech online depends on an open Internet, Scott said. "It is the open market for speech and commerce that drives broadband adoption," he said.

The groups' press conference came a day after Genachowski's 100 million homes speech and a release from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, saying that about 64 percent of U.S. households had broadband service as of October 2009. That's up from 51 percent in October 2007, but "a significant portion of the population is still not online," NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling said in a statement.

Link Hoewing, assistant vice president for Internet and technology issues at Verizon Communications, attended the coalition's press conference but declined to comment on the proposals the groups made.

An AT&T spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to a request for a comment on the coalition's goals, but she said the company commended Genachowski's goal of 100 million homes getting 100Mbps broadband.

"In setting a 100-megabit goal, the FCC surely recognizes the massive investment by the private sector that will be required," said Claudia Jones, AT&T's vice president for public affairs and media relations. "As the commission's own broadband team estimated, it would cost an additional $350 billion to bring 100-megabit service to every household in America. It is thus all the more important that the FCC resist calls for extreme forms of regulation that would cripple, if not destroy, the very investments needed to realize its goal."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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