Commentary

Will Broadband Plan End ISP Duopoly?

In a move cheered by some consumer advocates, the Federal Communications Commission is calling for plans to foster competition among Internet service providers as part of its new national broadband plan.

The plan isn't due until tomorrow, but an executive summary released Monday says that the plan will include "recommendations that will foster competition across the ecosystem."

Among other pro-competitive suggestions, the FCC appears poised to recommend that ISPs be required to disclose accurate broadband speeds, rather than the maximum speeds. While the exact recommendations aren't yet available, the summary released Monday discussed the need for consumers to "have the pricing and performance information they need to choose the best broadband offers in the market."

Currently, advertised maximum speeds can differ considerably from actual speeds. In extreme cases, the disparity has led to litigation, such as a pending lawsuit against HughesNet alleging that the company sold a $179-a-month plan promising speeds of up to 1.2 Mbps, but delivered average speeds of less than half that figure.

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The FCC also said Monday it will recommend a "comprehensive review of wholesale competition rules to help ensure competition in fixed and mobile broadband services."

Again, it's not clear what, exactly, the FCC has in mind. Consumer advocates like Public Knowledge have urged the FCC to require ISPs to share lines and make broadband available on a wholesale basis to retailers.

Conventional wisdom is that the plan won't go that far. Nonetheless, Public Knowledge issued an optimistic statement on Monday. "We are particularly encouraged to see so much attention devoted to competition policies, which we believe will help to create new opportunities for innovators and new choices for consumers in what is now a tightly held duopoly," stated president Gigi Sohn. "Specifically, we commend the commission for undertaking a review of wholesale competition rules."

That's a marked change from last December, when Sohn criticized a preliminary blueprint of the plan as not going far enough. "When bold plans are called for, the Commission appears to be satisfied with taking incremental steps," she said at the time.

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