Congress passed a bill last week – amidst various macroeconomic distractions – that directs the FCC to provide policymakers with better and "annual" as opposed to merely "regular" information about the diffusion of high-speed data services.
The bill – S.1492 – has two parts: "Title I: Broadband Data Improvement" and "Title II: Protecting Children." That second title, which concerns Internet safety and enhanced enforcement of child pornography, might have made it tricky for any legislator to oppose it.
Title II and the packaging of this legislation aside, however, Congress did entertain alternative approaches on gathering broadband data, with the version favored by the cable and telecommunications industries prevailing.
"The Senate version of the bill ended up passing," said Drew Clark, executive director of BroadbandCensus.com, a group supported by the Communications Workers of America that released related state-by-state research in August.
Introduced respectively by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) in the House and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) in the Senate, the two bills were in effect "pre-conferenced." According to Clark, Markey deferred to Inouye, and both chambers unanimously passed the identical (Senate) version early last week.
What’s the upshot? "The (Senate version) is not as favorable as the House version in terms of consumer information that will be disclosed," said Clark. "The House bill would have allowed the consumer to see who was providing the service."
What BroadbandCensus.com was gunning for was information that would enable consumers to compare particular Internet service providers (ISPs). It wasn’t alone. Clark said that Public Knowledge – whose board of directors includes former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt – shared that goal.
Not all stakeholders in the high-speed data world believed that was a practical or desirable objective. Among practical challenges, suggested in a recent CT column on speed tests, are uniform techniques for measuring speeds.
At any rate, another advocacy group – Connected Nation – whose board includes NCTA President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow and Telecommunications Industry Association President Grant Seiffert, praised this outcome.
The NCTA itself issued a separate release applauding Congress.
Although some reports indicate that this bill changed the definition of (downstream) broadband from 200 kbps to 768 kbps and added additional gradations of speed, the FCC itself actually changed those designations back in March.
The bill does include a provision for studying the impact of broadband speed and price on small businesses. It also points to international data, such as that collected by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, as benchmarks for comparison.
What’s next? Public Knowledge Board Communications Director Art Brodsky, who calls S.1492 a "worthwhile first step" in this blog, writes that lacking an appropriation bill, there won’t be any money available for the grants to the various organizations that are supposed to collect the desired information at least until calendar year 2010.
Brodsky also notes the challenges of a state-based vs. a uniform federal approach to collecting these data.
– Jonathan Tombes
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