By Kim Hart - 11/24/09 11:00 AM EST
Meredith Attwell Baker, the newest Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, spends most of her time thinking about the Internet — debating questions about whether it should be regulated, how it should be expanded and where the FCC can find the necessary airwaves to do so.
Internet companies, public interest groups and telecom carriers have lobbied Attwell heavily during her short tenure at the FCC on the network neutrality rules now under consideration. The rules would require broadband service providers to treat all Internet traffic equally.
“I’m not convinced we have a problem we need to address,” Baker said in an interview during a taping of C-SPAN’s “Communicators.” She also said there is “still a question of jurisdiction” in whether the FCC can legally impose such rules.
Baker has taken a keen interest in the spectrum shortage the FCC faces. As the former acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department that oversees the airwaves licensed to federal agencies, Baker thinks the government and companies need to use their spectrum resources more efficiently.
Broadcasters may be the source of some of the spectrum necessary to build wireless networks fast enough to provide broadband service, she said. The FCC is also moving forward to make empty broadcast airwaves known as “white spaces” available for unlicensed use, a proposal broadcasters have opposed vehemently.
“I don’t expect we’d take all the broadcasters’ spectrum, but I suspect that there might be some in there that might be more efficiently used in a commercial wireless sense,” she said. “All ideas should be on the table.”
She hopes the national broadband plan, due to Congress in February, will pay special attention to barriers that have prevented Americans from adopting broadband, such as high service prices and lack of relevant content.
“In the deployment area, we’ve actually done a good job,” she said. “Where I think we are finding we are lagging is in the adoption area. The FCC itself can do a much better education part in helping Americans realize what the value is of broadband.”
Here are excerpts from the interview with Baker.
Q: In your mind, how should Internet service providers be allowed to manage traffic on their networks?
I’m most familiar with the wireless networks. Clearly, there has to be prioritization on wireless networks for them to work. …
As we go forward, I’m actually not clear how we could impose network neutrality rules on wireless networks. I think we’ll leave it to engineers as we move forward to see how we can actually do that. What we don’t want to do here, especially in the course of developing a national broadband plan, is to do anything that would harm the innovation and investment in these networks. We’re encouraging them to build out and be faster and bigger and better, so we want to make sure we don’t do anything to damage that.
Q: How can the FCC unleash more spectrum?
We’ve done a very good job. We’ve put three times as much spectrum out for commercial access currently, and these networks are still just being built … We’re good today, but what we don’t have is a strategic plan for tomorrow.
Right now there are about 270 million mobile subscribers, and of that only about 40 million are mobile broadband subscribers. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 93 percent of those are Internet mobile subscribers. Our crisis is not today, but it’s going to be coming around the corner pretty quickly.
I think we need to find more spectrum, I think we need to leverage the spectrum that exists currently more efficiently, and we need to encourage new technologies and innovation.
Q: Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has said he is concerned the broadband plan will be incomplete when it is submitted in February. How do you respond?
You want to make sure we comprehensively take a pen to all the data, but it’s impractical to think we’re going to solve universal service within the plan. I laugh about the commission these days because all these decades-old problems — inter-carrier compensation, universal service or special access — are all walking around the FCC saying, if you solve me, you have solved broadband for America. What I hope is that we can take a comprehensive look and we can move forward to solve all of them. But that probably won’t be by Feb. 17. I think we will have action plans shortly thereafter … to set out goals we can take actionable work on over the next year.
For the full interview with Baker, visit Hillicon Valley.