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DOJ antitrust chief: Broadband industry is 'dynamic,' competitive

Consumers appear to have lots of choices in the voice, video, and broadband markets, he says, but his office is also pondering ways to ease lingering obstacles to competition.

WASHINGTON--The Bush administration's antitrust head on Thursday painted a rosy picture of competition in the voice, video,and broadband markets, although he warned the Justice Department is looking out for potential roadblocks.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Barnett U.S. Department of Justice

"This is a very dynamic industry," Thomas Barnett, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's antitrust division, said during a daylong symposium here hosted by his department. "It's doing wonderful things, and people are investing and taking risks with many billions of dollars."

Barnett is the same official who recently argued against the need for a lengthier period of government oversight on Microsoft's antitrust agreement with the government. Also under his tenure, the megamerger of AT&T and BellSouth received unconditional approval from his agency, although it did propose conditions on AT&T's recent purchase of the rural wireless carrier Dobson Communications

The rise of "cross-platform competition"--for instance, the fact that consumers can get video services from a traditional cable operator, a telephone company, or a satellite provider, to name a few--is good for consumers, the antitrust chief said. He touted the number of digital channels to which many cable and satellite subscribers now have access (compared, of course, with the four analog channels when he was a boy), the plunging cost of long-distance calls, and exploding wireless and broadband subscription rates over the past few years.

Still, his office does hear periodically about "factors that may be slowing the expansion of this competition," Barnett conceded.

Some challenges are technological--for example, in deploying high-speed mobile broadband networks and broadband over power lines. Others are economic--that is, the hefty price tag for building out new infrastructure. Others still are regulatory, Barnett said, such as when providers of video service are obligated to seek approval from multiple local authorities before they enter the market. (The department has already cautioned this year against burdensome restrictions at the local level and advocated for greater "efficiency" through state-level rules, causing some local officials to bristle.)

For now, though, Barnett didn't offer any hints as to what actions, if any, the department might have in mind, aside from producing a report on competition issues in the telecommunications space sometime next year.