The Federal Communications Commission has released a public notice asking for comment on what it describes as “the business broadband marketplace.” The public notice says that this request is part of an effort to ensure that the FCC “has a thorough understanding” of this market and its needs. Comments on this public notice are due on October 15 and reply comments are due on November 4. The public notice is available on the FCC’s web site at http://www.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2010/db0915/DA-10-1743A1.pdf.  

OVERVIEW

This public notice has a broad focus, and asks for questions on such topics as what services businesses use, the trends in business use of broadband and the impact of devices like the iPad that include broadband connectivity. The FCC is asking for comments because it believes that it “lacks a cohesive, comprehensive analytic framework for promoting competition in business broadband markets.” Chairman Genachowski described the FCC’s concerns as based in a desire “to analyze the broadband business marketplace with the goal of ensuring that small businesses realize the maximum benefits of broadband services and competition.” The public notice is reminiscent of the myriad requests for comment during the preparation of the national broadband plan. It suggests a basic goal – providing “fast, affordable broadband access” – but does not propose any specific approach. Instead, it is framed as an information-gathering exercise. This approach suggests that the FCC may, as was the case with the broadband plan, use the information it gathers to support multiple initiatives.

THE REQUEST

The notice asks for comments from service providers, businesses that use broadband and any other interested parties. While the request for comments encompasses any information on “the current state of, and trends and issues in, broadband business markets,” it also asks for specific information in three areas, all related to the services offered to and used by businesses.  

The Basics

The first set of questions relates to the services, technologies and facilities used in the business broadband marketplace. The notice also asks for information on the size of marketplace, based on revenues, demand or any other relevant criteria.  

It is worth noting that the notice recognizes that many of the services and technologies used by businesses are not, strictly speaking, Internet access. For instance, the notice mentions frame relay, asynchronous transfer mode and Ethernet as examples of high-capacity services used by business customers.  

Specific Services and Technologies

The next set of questions relates to specific “combinations of services, technologies and facilities” and how often each combination is used. The FCC is particularly interested in understanding why some combinations of services, technologies and facilities are used more or less and whether variations in usage of particular combinations are related to types of customers, differences in features, bandwidth or other characteristics.  

One interesting aspect of this part of the notice is that the FCC does not appear to consider whether the technologies that are used to provide service are dependent on the choices made the service providers or the technologies they use to provide other services. For instance, a cable operator is unlikely to offer service via DSL, and very few telephone companies are likely to use DOCSIS, yet the notice does not ask whether service provider choice or underlying service provider technology is a factor in the services offered to customers.  

Trends

The final group of specific questions focuses on trends in the business broadband marketplace. This is the area where the FCC asks the most detailed questions. The topics those questions cover are:  

  • Increases and decreases in market share for specific technologies and why those changes are occurring.  
  • Trends in pricing and technical characteristics (e.g., bandwidth) for specific services, technologies and facilities.  
  • The likely impact of “non-traditional” providers and technologies, including cable companies and wireless.  
  • The impact of non-carrier wholesale customers, such as Apple, Amazon and energy companies that want to implement smart grid applications.

UNASKED QUESTIONS

The questions the FCC does not ask are significant as well. For instance, the notice does not specifically ask for comment on how broadband service is being used by small business or how that usage is similar to or different from uses by larger businesses or residential customers. For that matter, the notice does not focus at all on the perceived needs of small business users, from either their perspective or the perspective of service providers. In this context, it is unsurprising that the FCC also does not ask if there are any specific actions it should take to meet the needs of small business customers. This emphasizes that, at this point, the FCC views its efforts as focused on information gathering and understanding the marketplace.

IMPLICATIONS

It seems likely that the FCC’s specific focus on small business in this notice is related to broader Obama Administration efforts in recent weeks to create a perception that it is working to help small businesses. This is, in fact, the first time in recent years that the FCC has sought any specific comment on issues related to small businesses and services under its jurisdiction.

It also is likely, however, that this is not just a matter of current politics. The FCC probably will use the information it gathers in this proceeding, as well as what it has gathered in its special access proceeding (which is mentioned in the notice), to inform future actions. It would be unsurprising, for instance, if data from this proceeding is used in the context of proceedings on universal service, privacy, smart grid and implementation of other parts of the national broadband plan.

For that reason, it may be beneficial to both small businesses and service providers to highlight any issues that are specific to small businesses, such as building access or specific types of services that might be useful to small businesses. While there is no guarantee that those issues will be addressed in any specific proceeding, the specific focus of this proceeding may heighten the FCC’s interest in addressing them more promptly.