With the current commission split 2-2 on party lines, longtime Democratic Commissioner Susan Ness has as much say right now on those policies as does the agency's Republican chairman, Michael Powell. And Powell, despite his impulse toward governmental restraint, has cited broadband as the greatest success of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. His Democratic colleagues share that enthusiasm.
In an interview Thursday, Ness promoted FCC activism on broadband, particularly in getting services to rural areas and in promoting new technologies such as 3G (third-generation) wireless. Commission politics would not be a deterrent, she vowed.
"I dispute the notion that all issues here are decided on partisan grounds," Ness said. "Usually it breaks down to who supports the position of the incumbents and who supports the position of the insurgents," she said.
Over pastries and coffee in her corner office atop the FCC headquarters, Ness defended the Telecom Act on its five-year anniversary. Regulators, politicians and telecommunications executives this week sought to outshout each other with their takes on whether the Telecom Act succeeded or failed.
"We've made enormous progress" since the act's passage, she said, adding that it's not reasonable to expect monopolies to be completely abolished and competition to flourish in every market "in a very short period of time." Ness has more at stake on this issue than any other member of the FCC, as she is the only commissioner who has served through the whole period of the law's implementation.
A capital idea
"The Telecom Act unleashed an enormous capital investment in broadband," Ness said, resulting in a penetration across the United States much deeper than anyone could have expected. Her assessment, informed by her experience as a corporate lender, was backed by a study released Thursday by Nielsen NetRatings, which found that nearly 12 million U.S. homes had a high-speed Internet connection, up from 5 million a year earlier.
But Ness said she's concerned that many people don't have much choice in broadband providers, and others lack access to any provider. One way the agency may boost broadband deployment in rural areas, Ness said, is through expanding the Universal Service Fund, created by fees on consumer phone bills.
"In the context of our review (of the fund), we'll look at broadband" to see if it should be added to the list of subsidized telecommunications services, she said. Ness added that "we take very seriously" the statute that instructs the agency to remove any rules that could obstruct the deployment of advanced services such as high-speed Internet access to underserved areas.
The FCC recently drew criticism from the chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, Conrad Burns, R-Mont., for not aggressively implementing that statute. Ness cautioned that encouraging private industry to serve those areas "will take time."
The commissioner showed a bit more sympathy for struggling competitive DSL providers such as Covad Communications and NorthPoint Communications than Powell did on Tuesday, when he essentially said that their financial troubles were of their own doing.
One way in which the FCC could assist DSL competitors, she said, is to make sure that whenever a Bell company is granted long-distance rights in a state, it be held to strict standards that forbid it from thwarting DSL competitors.
Broadband goes wireless
"It is vitally important that (wireless) companies have access to new spectrum," she said, both to serve the technology's growing customer base and to encourage the adoption of 3G services such as high-speed Internet access and streaming video. She described herself as a "big fan of getting spectrum out there."
One way to do that might be to eliminate or raise the cap that limits the extent of the airwaves a carrier can own in a given market. When the cap was first instituted to encourage multiple wireless providers, Ness--supporting the agency's current review--said, "we expected its usefulness would decline over time. I do think it's time to examine if it should be eliminated or raised."
In compliance with an executive order issued by President Clinton last year, the FCC soon will issue a final report outlining how a certain segment of spectrum could be used for 3G. Ness noted, however, that some of the spectrum at issue, 2.5GHz, is occupied by fixed wireless providers including schools, public broadcasters and broadband providers such as Sprint and WorldCom.
"Two-way fixed broadband service is just beginning to be rolled out," she said, and it doesn't make sense to stifle one broadband offering in order to assist another. "The examination to date has not found that sharing (airwaves between fixed wireless and 3G providers) would be very easy."