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FCC gives cautious thumbs-up to broadband market

Federal regulators give their yearly pronouncement on the state of the high-speed Internet: It's coming faster, but it's not there yet.

Federal regulators today gave their yearly pronouncement on the state of the high-speed Internet: It's coming faster, but it's not there yet.

The number of cable modem subscribers jumped by 150 percent in 1999, while high-speed telephone line services shot up 380 percent last year, the Federal Communications Commission said today. But that growth was still mainly in high-income areas, threatening to leave rural and inner-city neighborhoods behind, commissioners warned.

Small towns in the fast lane "We see some encouraging trends," FCC Chairman William Kennard said in a statement today. "But the data in the report show, even at the aggregate level, that rural areas and low-income areas are much less likely to have access to advanced services."

Nevertheless, regulators said they saw no need to take any immediate action to help fill gaps left by the market, other than to find a way to get better data. The agency is already working to address these issues on several fronts, including looking at whether new rules are needed to improve access to cable networks and ways to improve use of wireless spectrum.

Today's report is the FCC's second annual report to Congress on the state of the broadband industry. Following last year's lead, the report concluded that high-speed Net services are being installed in a "reasonably and timely fashion overall," even if there are problem areas.

That conclusion bolsters Kennard's pursuit of a largely hands-off Net regulatory policy during the past few years, for which he has drawn considerable heat from consumer groups and some Internet service providers that believe the cable and telephone giants have acted unfairly.

The commissioners did note today that their data needs to be more extensive, however.

The surveys done for the report asked telecommunications providers to report whether a single individual subscribed to broadband services within each zip code. That's not enough to dig deeply see story: Find a broadband provider into the demographics of use or to determine how well each community is being served, the commissioners said.

"The available data do not provide a full and accurate picture of the state of deployment," commissioner Gloria Tristani, who registered similar concerns last year, warned in her own statement. "The data...suffer from several weaknesses that undermine our ability to draw well-supported conclusions and to identify with specificity at-risk communities."