Case Overview, Deployment of Broadband Technology (107th Congress)

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over broadband deployment during the 107th Congress. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.


           The ascent of the Internet was startlingly quick. Within a matter of a few years the Internet went from a specialized resource of the computer cognoscenti to a mass-market phenomenon. Although home computers had been common for some years, the critical technological connection for Internet access was the simple landline telephone. A common telephone wire plugged into the back of a computer and a contract with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) was all that was needed to hook up. America Online (AOL) became the biggest ISP and its steady flow of monthly home account payments soon made it a huge, cash rich company. At the time of its merger with Time Warner, it had a market capitalization of twice that of the venerable media company with such important components as Time, Sports Illustrated, Warner Brothers, and HBO. AOL shareholders received a controlling interest in the new company, a symbol of the Internet Age that spoke volumes.

           The telephone access to the Internet provided by AOL and other ISP's worked better for the ISP's than for consumers. Dial-up Internet service is maddeningly slow; new pages can unfurl at a snail's pace. New technologies soon emerged, most notably DSL and cable modem service. They offer speed-considerably faster speed-than dial-up service and consumers who could afford the more expensive means of connecting quickly migrated to one of the high speed providers.

           The rapid changes in Internet technology have proved to be a challenge to government regulators. One particularly difficult issue has been access to cable. Traditional cable television companies can provide high speed Internet connections through the cable wires that have long entered the home for television. Different cable companies have built complex infrastructures in local communities that wire homes to relay points and then to a broader network, analogous to the work of the Bell system telephone companies in wiring the nation for phone service. A company like AOL would love to provide access to the Internet by coming into the home over cable wires. Cable companies are not, however, required to allow other companies to offer services over their wires. Cable providers want to offer their Internet service and only their Internet service.

           Beyond the technology, this issue is complicated because phone service is regulated while cable TV is unregulated. ISP's like AOL want "open access" to cable lines and these companies formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to require it. The FCC has the authority under law to require such open access but rejected a petition to do so in March of 2002. The Media Access Project, a Washington-based consumer group filed suit against the FCC, hoping to overturn the decision. Consumer groups want open access because it would mean more competition, and more competition is likely to bring about lower pricing, better service, and more choices in the bundling of telephone, cable, and cable modem packages. A final court decision has not yet been rendered.