FCC Begins Latest Probe of Broadband Access

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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has begun its latest inquiry into the state of broadband in the U.S., an annual effort that touches on areas of growing national debate.

On Friday the FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry seeking comment on how it should define and measure broadband availability, whether current services are good enough and what the agency should do to accelerate broadband deployment. It asked companies, organizations, individuals and other responders to file comments between Sept. 4 and Oct. 2 for a report to be delivered to Congress on Feb. 3, 2010.

This is the sixth so-called "706 Inquiry" since the process was mandated by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the first one under the Obama administration. Under a law passed last year, the inquiry will now be carried out annually. The Commission, led by new Chairman Julius Genachowski, said it was starting the process with a "clean slate" after Congress called for a National Broadband Plan as well as more granular data about broadband deployment across the country. The FCC has already begun gathering that more detailed information.

Critics have attacked the government's recent assessments of the country's broadband status, saying it overlooked large areas that don't have access to true high-speed Internet access. In all five reports, the FCC has concluded that deployment of broadband was "reasonable and timely" nationwide. However, the FCC has defined broadband as 200Kb per second (Kbps) or more, which falls short of typical DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem services, as well as much faster services available in some other countries. While some critics say the U.S. lags behind most developed countries, service providers and others say there is adequate availability and competition.

The FCC raises many questions for commenters in its 62-page Notice of Inquiry, including whether it should raise the minimum speed in its definition of broadband and possibly revisit that definition each year. The agency also asks whether it should count local resources such as libraries, community colleges and public Wi-Fi hotspots toward availability of broadband. It wants more information from third parties about the availability of broadband on Indian tribal lands and to low-income people and those with disabilities.

The inquiry is taking place at the same time as the FCC is preparing a National Broadband Plan that was called for in the federal stimulus package passed in February. Comments it gets for that report will be included. The National Broadband Plan is due to Congress on Feb. 17.

Comments can be submitted on paper, through the FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System, or at Regulations.gov.

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