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If you believe in broadband, free IPTV

Bruce Mehlman and Larry Irving warn that regulations threaten to strangle a promising broadband technology.

There is very little on which Democrats and Republicans agree these days.

From taxes to trade to the United Nations to the Supreme Court, Washington politicians are long on battle grounds and all too short on common ground. Yet despite a seemingly ever-rising tide of partisan acrimony, there is broad bipartisan agreement on at least one thing: the vital importance of broadband to America's future.

Broadband, or high-speed Internet connectivity, is proving increasingly critical to how citizens around the world work, live, play and learn. Broadband has helped businesses become more productive, governments become more accessible, students become better prepared and citizens become more involved with their entertainment, community and even family lives.

While 34.5 percent of Americans have signed up for broadband, 65.5 percent have not.

The good news here is that more than 120 million Americans already have broadband access in their homes, up from 103 million in January. The Federal Communications Commission reports that 95 percent of U.S. ZIP codes are served by at least one high-speed Internet provider, with access "hot spots" sprouting up in thousands of coffee houses, hotels, airports and community centers. Political leaders of both major parties, plus an engaged and highly effective FCC chairman, are committed to universal broadband availability as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, this broadband good news is not always as good as the broadband bad news is bad. The most recent international comparisons report that the United States has fallen to 12th in connectivity per capita, well behind such bona fide competitors as Korea (No. 1), Japan (No. 8) and even Iceland (No. 4). American broadband connection speeds are also far slower on average than those in many other parts of the world, and these slower networks limit the potential for broadband connectivity to have maximum transformational impact.

Of even greater concern is that while 34.5 percent of Americans have signed up for broadband, 65.5 percent have not. The deployment of broadband (supply) continues to significantly exceed adoption (demand), limiting investment in next-generation networks and services, and restraining the positive impact of broadband on our citizens and society.

While there are multiple reasons for this lack of widespread adoption--privacy and security concerns, desire for separation from what is associated with work, generational disinterest--the biggest factor by far remains that too few citizens see the value. This is not a question simply of cost, since broadband access costs less, on average, than cable or satellite television, to which 95.7 million households subscribe when they could alternatively watch over-the-air television for free.

For anyone seeking more rapid broadband adoption, the "silver bullet" is made of better content and new services. No new service or technology offers more promising content and services than IPTV, video offerings provided over Internet Protocol. IPTV offers rich video programming (like digital cable TV) and two-way interactive options, allowing a compelling and differentiated experience.

Our message to policy leaders is simple: Hands off IPTV!

IPTV networks are about more than television-viewing options. They also can improve health care in rural and urban America; as educational resources for grade school students and their parents; and as lower-cost broadband capacity for small and midsize businesses, which increasingly are dependent on electronic networks.

Companies are working on and investing in competitive video offerings such as IPTV to consumers, recognizing that many consumers are fed up with cable, whose rates have increased more than 40 percent in the past five years with no sign of letting up. And preliminary indications suggest that consumers are excited for the competition to cable, eager for the new offerings and much more ready to embrace broadband when it includes voice, video and data services.

Yet IPTV faces a major challenge. It is not technological, with the best and brightest engineers solving those issues. And it is not market-created, with investors ready to deploy the new networks. Rather, the challenge to more rapid IPTV deployment is governmental.

Because some state, local and federal policy makers misperceive new broadband video offerings as identical to the cable television services deployed by monopolies more than a decade ago, they seek to regulate them identically. Specifically, they demand that IPTV providers negotiate franchise agreements separately and individually with more than 33,000 municipal governments for the right to send content over the Internet.

Not surprisingly, industry analysts and objective observers identify this regulatory burden as the single biggest barrier to more rapid IPTV deployment and thus accelerated broadband adoptions and investments. But there is hope.

To their credit, far-sighted members of the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat alike, have identified the need for minimal regulation and simplified franchising processes. The Texas legislature similarly recognized that those who truly believe in broadband need to free IPTV and overwhelmingly passed forward-looking legislation that should serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

Our message to policy leaders is simple: Hands off IPTV! The new content and services needed to accelerate broadband adoption and encourage investment in next-generation networks, especially IPTV, are ready, willing and able to deploy--that is, if government gets out of the way.