The Federal Communications Commission started the ball rolling on some items in its National Broadband Plan on Wednesday, but regulators made no mention of whether they are considering reclassifying broadband traffic.
One of the first items the FCC addressed on Wednesday was beginning the process to reform the Universal Service Fund. The commissioners voted unanimously to shift the fund's goal from addressing and subsidizing rural telephone service to providing universal broadband service.
The commission also approved an order that examines how to bring more innovation and competition to the TV set-top box market, which today is dominated by Motorola and Cisco Systems' Scientific-Atlanta. The FCC said it would like to see a standardized set-top box on the market that would allow consumers to have one box that provides TV access via the Internet, cable, satellite, or over the air. The FCC would also like to see a robust market where consumers could buy set top boxes from retailers, such as Best Buy, instead of leasing them monthly from TV service providers.
These items were voted on despite a recent court ruling against the FCC in which the agency's authority to regulate the Internet was called into question. Earlier this month, a U.S. appeals court ruled the FCC failed to show it had the authority to censure Comcast, which had been accused of blocking certain traffic on its network.
Since the ruling, consumer advocates have been calling for the FCC to reclassify broadband traffic so that it is treated like traditional telecommunications services, which fall under FCC authority. These advocates say that the best way to keep the FCC's Net Neutrality agenda alive is to put the FCC's authority on firmer legal grounding.
But broadband service providers, such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon Communications, oppose reclassification. They say that if the FCC changes the rules, it will stifle innovation on the Internet.
Chairman Julius Genachowski made no mention of the brewing debate during the meeting and instead focused on the National Broadband Plan items.
The FCC also voted to approve an order requiring phone companies, such as AT&T and Verizon to allow roaming on its voice networks. The order reverses a policy that had been in place since 2007 that allowed the phone companies to exclude certain competitors in certain markets from roaming.
The FCC also proposed requiring similar roaming agreements for data services.
Free Press applauded the move. "We are encouraged that the Commission has taken action on wireless roaming," Chris Riley, Free Press policy counsel, said in a statement. "The removal of the home roaming exception for voice services will help resolve one of the many current obstacles to effective competition in the wireless market."
But Bob Quinn, AT&T Senior Vice President of Federal Regulatory matters, said in a blog post that the shift would discourage investment in wireless services and could stifle development of new wireless broadband networks.
"Make no mistake, the significance of today's decision isn't about voice roaming (let's face it, if a carrier hasn't built out its voice network in the last 10 years, the likelihood of that happening now is about as good as the Nats winning the World Series this year)," he said. "No, the impact of this decision will be felt as the Commission moves to address data roaming where the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking this morning."
Quinn said that commission will need to provide incentives to wireless operators to build networks in areas where they hold licenses. Measures, such as the one that was passed Wednesday, do not provide those necessary incentives, he said.
"The federal agency's action in regard to voice services and roaming is a troubling indicator as to what direction they'll go in with regard to data services," he said.