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FCC: No new broadband rules needed now

No new regulatory action is needed to speed the deployment of high-speed Internet services as companies are rolling out services quickly enough for federal law, the FCC says.

No new regulatory action is needed to speed the deployment of high-speed Internet services as telephone and cable companies are rolling out services quickly enough for federal law, the Federal Communications Commission concluded today.

In a report to Congress, regulators said that broadband technologies are being rolled out in a "reasonable and timely manner," and that communications companies should continue moving as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, rural and inner city areas still do not have access to high-speed networks, and commissioners said they would keep a close watch to make sure the technology reaches all sectors of society.

Under the provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC is required to take "immediate" action if they found that high-speed Internet services are not being deployed quickly enough.

Commissioners said today that the market is still very young, but that companies are investing heavily in the sector. As a result, no immediate action is necessary, they said.

"I don't think any of my colleagues would argue that average Americans actually have any of the services we are discussing here today," said Commissioner Michael Powell. "But there is a tremendous amount of activity in this area, including investment and deployment, that gives us hope."

The issue has been closely watched by critics of the FCC and of the Baby Bells and cable companies, who have largely controlled the speed of deployment of Internet-over-cable services and high-speed telephone line technology such as digital subscriber line, or DSL.

Rural legislators had pressed the FCC for action, arguing that no broadband technologies were filtering to their regions yet.

"I am very concerned that if the commission does not alter its course?you and I will be long gone before most Americans have access to truly interactive broadband capability," Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana) recently wrote in a letter to Kennard.

Burns' concerns were taken to heart by many officials, especially commissioner Gloria Tristani, a former New Mexico legislator.

"At least as of a week ago, from reports I've heard, consumers don't have any broadband access in that state [New Mexico]," Tristani said. "Based on this report, I don't know if there are other states that are as unfortunate as New Mexico in not having broadband services available."

Nevertheless, the commission concluded in its report that companies are making some efforts to deploy broadband services in rural areas. It said, however, that it would take "immediate steps" to accelerate this deployment if companies don't continue network buildouts in those areas.

Some ISPs had also lobbied the commission to push cable companies to allow "open access" other services providers as a part of this review. Currently, companies such as Tele-Communications Incorporated which controls the @Home broadband cable access service, do not allow other ISPs to offer their services independently over cable.

The commission said this report was not the place for that decision, but said it would continue watching the issue closely.

"This is a serious issue, and one that I feel we should keep monitoring very closely," Kennard said. "We shouldn't rest just because we have one broadband pipe into consumers' homes."

The commission will revisit the issue of broadband availability later, Kennard said, and would push its staff to review telephone companies' deployment of fiber, and cable companies' rollout of cable net services on an ongoing basis.

"We know that those cut off from high-speed networks today will be cut off from economic opportunities tomorrow," Kennard said.

Recent rollouts
Although the market is still in its infancy, many companies have made determined efforts since late last year to expand their broadband service offerings.

America Online and Bell Atlantic recently signed a deal to deliver content to consumers via digital subscriber lines. Despite its limited availability, many companies continue to watch DSL with keen interest.

Cable operators, already delivering cable modem services such as @Home and Road Runner, are aggressively trading and buying established cable systems with an eye toward delivery next-generation services such as high-speed Internet access, voice-over-IP, and video on demand.

And there is increasing speculation that Internet companies and content providers will look to partner with direct-to-home satellite broadcasters, which have already wrested some television market share from cable operators.

CNET's Corey Grice contributed to this report.