FCC’s O’Rielly, Clyburn say Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee should focus on consumer needs

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The FCC's Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee held its first meeting on Friday.

Now that the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) has officially gotten off the ground, FCC commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Mignon Clyburn have called for new policies that are technology-agnostic and put the consumer first.

In February, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai created the BDAC to look at ways to make reforms related to key infrastructure and regulatory issues: pole attachment rules, identifying unreasonable regulatory barriers to broadband deployment, ways to encourage local governments to adopt deployment-friendly policies, and other reforms.

RELATED: FCC’s Pai forms Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, sets focus on encouraging broadband growth

One of the key issues that the committee will focus on is helping to alleviate the confusion related to getting necessary permitting and rights-of-way in local towns and cities. After becoming chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai said in his first speech that his key goal was to close the digital divide by providing incentives to privately owned ISPs to build out networks.

"I believe one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide,” Pai said.

A technology-agnostic approach

O’Rielly encouraged BDAC's members during his speech at the group's initial meeting on Friday to look at multiple technology options to expand broadband.

O'Rielly, FCC Comissioner Image: FCC

“I hope this committee will take a holistic approach when reviewing possible technology solutions,” O’Rielly said in a speech addressing BDAC members. “The Commission has tried to maintain a principle near and dear to me of technology neutrality.”

This strategy would include a mix of everything from fiber to emerging wireless technologies. While fiber is a superior technology, O’Rielly said that there are some areas where service providers can’t build a case to wire up homes with fiber.

“Clearly, it is not economically feasible to drag fiber to every unserved location. Instead, it will take multiple technologies,” O’Rielly said. “While that may make your review that much more challenging, accepting and honoring this reality will best serve everyone in the long run.”  

As BDAC and the broader FCC look for ways to expand broadband services to underserved and unserved areas, O’Rielly said that he will continue to protest any attempts to impose fees on consumers to fund new deployments.

“At some point I am sure, someone will argue that one solution is just to throw money at the problem,” O’Rielly said. “In this case, the money they talk about comes from consumers in the form of higher service fees than are necessary. I will be extremely reluctant to consider any recommendation that proposes to increase costs on everyday Americans trying to survive in today’s economy.” 

Keeping consumers first

In her speech, fellow FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn argued for a consumer-first mentality that does not put large service providers’ desire to transition from TDM to IP-based technologies  ahead of the needs of consumers. Clyburn laid out three main issues: providing low-income area broadband, broadband affordability, and ensuring consumer protections.

Low-cost broadband, while a challenging issue for large ISPs, is something that AT&T, CenturyLink, Cox and others have continued to ramp up in recent years. Clyburn said that low-income areas should be able to get a decent broadband experience.

FCC Commissioner Clyburn Image: FCC

“I am well aware of the challenges that face providers looking to enable services in areas that are often least able to pay; your mission is to look for solutions to this challenge,” Clyburn said. “You must ensure that the policies you recommend will mend, rather than make worse, long-standing digital and opportunities divides.”

CenturyLink joined Cox in supporting former President Obama's new ConnectHome initiative, a pilot program that is designed to provide broadband to low-income families in 27 cities and one tribal nation.

In 2015, Pai’s predecessor, Tom Wheeler, announced a number of new proposals that he said would restructure and modernize the regulator's $1.7 billion Lifeline voice service program by redirecting funds to extend broadband to lower income residents. Clyburn said that providing more affordable broadband services means more consumers can take advantage of it regardless of their economic situation.

“If broadband is truly the great equalizer that many have held it out to be, how cruel is it to deny access to those who would most benefit from it?,” Clyburn said. “Build affordability of service into every equation you come up with, and I believe that you will find that consumers and broadband providers alike will reap the benefits.”

Clyburn also reemphasized that the FCC’s recent actions to streamline regulations for rights of way and the IP transition and municipal regulatory reforms take into account how the broader user community could be impacted. During its April monthly meeting, the FCC put forth proposals to reform the pole attachment process and copper retirement. At that time, the commission said that its reforms will help accelerate deployment of next-generation networks and services by removing barriers to infrastructure investment at the federal, state and local level.

“As you debate how to streamline processes of all sorts, remember that time is necessary for consumers to make informed decisions, about what to do when their provider says their legacy landline phone service is being turned off,” Clyburn said. “As you determine how to draft a model municipal tower siting code, remember that all municipalities are not created equal.”

Clyburn added that the BDAC should “cast a wide net for ideas and understanding, so that we do not end up with a one-size-fits-all solution that ends up being one-size-fits-only-a-few.”