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Internet

FCC tackles bandwidth

The FCC hosts a meeting of high-tech companies, telco giants, and consumer groups to help the government devise policies on issues such as providing universal Internet access and relieving Internet congestion.

The President won't be appointing a Secretary of the Internet, but the Net will be playing a more important role at the Federal Communications Commission in Clinton's second term.

On Thursday, the FCC will host a meeting of high-tech companies, telco giants, and consumer groups--collectively dubbed the Bandwidth Forum--that is gathering to help the government devise policies on issues such as providing universal Internet access and relieving Internet congestion. (See related story)

Only a year ago, when President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the government was still focused on making the Information Superhighway a reality--a network that encompassed all kinds of high bandwidth technologies and provided new interactive services, such as making telephone calls over the cable network or sending video-on-demand systems over the phone system.

The government is following the industry's lead and narrowing its focus to the Internet, a network that lends itself to less grandiose speeches but has more practical application in the real world, at least for the short term.

"The point of the forum is that we recognize that the world is changing and that the growth of the Internet and packet-switched technology is a fundamentally different way of communicating than the traditional phone network," said Kevin Werbach, a spokesman for the FCC. "We're trying to identify what we should be doing, and what the industry should be doing about that."

At the Bandwidth Forum this week, the FCC will ask that question of the Internet service providers, software, and hardware companies that are shaping the future of the Net.

FCC chairman Reed Hundt will deliver the keynote speech to the forum, which will also be attended by representatives of Intel, Bell Atlantic, America Online, Netscape Communications, and Cisco Systems.

The FCC also plans to address complaints by regional telephone companies, such as Pacific Bell and Nynex, that Internet users are jamming the phone network, making it more difficult for ordinary people to make phone calls.

One panel will discuss how packet-switching technologies, which are better suited for carrying Internet traffic, might help take pressure off the circuit-switched phone network.

The Bandwidth Forum will also discuss universal Net access, the idea that the government should somehow provide free or low-cost Internet connections to schools, libraries, and rural areas. Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC is required to investigate delivery of interactive services to such institutions, but so far the agency has not formulated an actual plan for doing so.

The group will also discuss the merits of various bandwidth technologies for delivering high-speed Internet access such as ADSL, cable modems, wireless, satellite, and ISDN.

Companies participating in the discussion, however, hope that the FCC will steer clear from endorsing one particular technology and focus on making higher bandwidth available to everyone.

"The FCC shouldn't favor one technology over another," said Peter Harter, public policy counsel for Netscape. "As long as FCC policy focuses on getting as many users transferred onto dedicated TCP/IP access, that's the best for everyone concerned."

But while some industry representatives appear nervous that the FCC will get too involved in the details of the Internet communications infrastructure, many are encouraged that FCC is beginning a dialogue with the industry on Internet access.

"Under the Telecommunications Act, they have the authority to do things to bump up bandwidth," said James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, a public advocacy group. "It's a welcome thing to see them looking at bandwidth issues more generically."