Under the lens of election-year politics, it’s easy to think of all regulations as roadblocks. But regulations can be technology enablers, said Henning Schulzrinne, CTO at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Speaking at yesterday’s “The Regulator’s Perspective: Telecom Regulations in an Internet World” gathering sponsored by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Center for Business and Public Policy, Schulzrinne added, “Regulatory actions have been crucial in establishing certain technologies. Regulation can have the role of spreading technology from the few to the many and scaling up applications.”

The addition of GPS to cellphones is one example of that. Initially, GPS was a niche application, but the requirement that cellphones support E911 meant the addition of GPS technology to every U.S. device. “Suddenly, you could build location-based applications quicker and in a much larger scale than elsewhere [in the world],” Schulzrinne explained. “The mandate that made no economic sense initially drove down costs of the application and got the mass market going.”

Eye On Broadband

Recently, the FCC has used its regulatory authority to influence the shape of broadband in America. An example is the FCC’s reform of the Universal Service Fund into the broadband-focused Connect America Fund, which has as one of its goals the spread of broadband access to unserved areas (click here for more information).

Schulzrinne noted that, while there has been significant improvement in the availability of 100 Mbps broadband access, total broadband availability (any type of access) still stands at around 94 percent/95 percent of the country. “No one I’ve talked to is happy with that,” he said, citing “frustration” that the number hasn’t budged.

Broadband adoption rates also are stagnant. “We seem to be stuck at roughly two-thirds, or 64 percent. How do we get adoption much closer to the availability rates?” he asked.

Schulzrinne hopes bidders in the Connect America Fund will connect more people with broadband and narrow this gap. “Simply making it available isn’t enough. We’re trying to drive up penetration,” he said. One positive private initiative Schulzrinne cited is Comcast’s offer of $10 Internet access to families with children who participate in the national school-lunch program (click here for more information).

Are U.S. Prices Too High?

One factor that could be limiting broadband adoption is its cost. Although the FCC doesn’t control broadband prices, it does track them. “The United States doesn’t look so great in terms of affordability,” said Schulzrinne. When examining prices for 15 Mbps-25 Mbps of download speed for fixed residential service, he pointed out, “The United States is at the high end. It looks better on the mobile side,” adding that, in the United States, the average price per GB of smartphone data is at the “low end” of the pricing spectrum.

Another area where the FCC collects data is the comparison of the download speeds advertised and the speed delivered by the provider. In 2011, there were gaps between advertised speeds and delivered speeds as high as 20 percent. In 2012, “there’s a pretty good match between what a company advertises and what it delivers. Some companies are at more than 100 percent of what is advertised,” said Schulzrinne. “That’s significantly better than a year ago.”

What Will The Broadband Future Hold?

Going forward, Schulzrinne said the industry needs to avoid the mindset that “10 Mbps should be good enough for everyone…That’s the wrong model. We want networks that are transparent to applications,” adding “networks shouldn’t interfere with the application” and they shouldn’t “limit performance.”

Schulzrinne also noted the industry needs to be looking at peak speed and upstream bandwidth, rather than focusing on consumptive applications, because those two metrics are critical for productive applications.

On the engineering front, Schulzrinne urged service providers to find ways to reduce the cost of deployment. He cited “fiberhoods (such as those being built by Google in Kansas City [click here for more information]),” self-installation and the need for broadband to be “built into the home, not bolted on…No one has water pipes installed later. Every home will have broadband. We might as well build for it.”

He also noted that, on the policy front, the FCC is encouraging a “dig once” philosophy. For example, as new federal highways are constructed, agencies would ask broadband carriers if they want to install fiber at the same time. In addition, municipalities are encouraged to deploy conduit when they are building their infrastructures.

“We have a massive need to replace [aging] water and sewage lines.  Adding conduit to that costs almost nothing but makes blowing fiber through that much cheaper,” he concluded.

Jennifer Whalen

The Daily

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