Paying `Lip Service’ To Rurual Broadband Deployment? It is never out of vogue for policymakers in Washington to say that they must take action to close the so-called "digital divide" for broadband and advanced services in rural America. They spend a lot of time talking about it, because it’s a great political issue. From independent cable’s perspective, we agree! Independent cable operators have responded by investing hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy advanced voice, video and data networks in smaller markets and rural areas throughout America. Our members live and work in the communities they serve, and you can bet they want to deploy even more broadband services to their customers. So, what’s the problem? On numerous recent occasions, policymakers’ actions belie their words. They’ve enacted new laws or refused to rectify existing laws that actually hinder broadband deployment in rural America. We all know it costs money to create a broadband network or expand an existing network’s service area, and the federal government was proactive in addressing this issue with the creation of broadband loans from the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, instead of reserving the broadband loans for unserved markets, millions of dollars in RUS loans have been given to new entrants in markets already served by existing broadband providers (many of whom funded their efforts with their own capital). Strike one against rural broadband deployment. Current federal rules allow broadcasters to demand cash payment or other economic consideration, such as forced carriage of affiliated programming channels for carriage of their channels. At the same time, broadcasters rely on other FCC rules to prevent cable operators from shopping for lower-cost alternatives. This market exclusivity has led to abusive contracting practices resulting in higher cable costs, less programming choice and the impediment of the rollout of advanced services in smaller markets. Broadcast cash demands for "free" television have already cost cable operators hundreds of millions of dollars, leaving less money for rural broadband deployment. Operators of all sizes have asked Congress and the FCC to rectify the situation; they have not. Strike two against rural broadband deployment. Another issue is the ill-conceived set-top box integration ban that went into effect earlier this month. Cable operators have been forced to divert millions of dollars from network expansion projects to comply with a ban that provides no additional services to consumers, but increases consumers’ costs for "CableCARD" equipment. Worse yet, "CableCARD" technology will be antiquated within about 18 months. When our members and industry presented the FCC with a better solution already in the works, they opted to ignore it. Strike three against rural broadband deployment. From a national policy perspective, do we really want to encourage the highest degree of broadband deployment and true competition in rural America? If so, then Washington’s actions have to speak louder than its words. (Matthew Polka is pres/CEO of the American Cable Association)

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