FCC exempts fiber-to-curb from sharing requirements

The Federal Communications Commission Thursday voted to allow incumbent telephone carriers to refrain from sharing fiber-to-the-curb deployments with competitors, prompting one incumbent to announce an accelerated fiber rollout.

The Federal Communications Commission Thursday voted to allow incumbent telephone carriers to refrain from sharing fiber-to-the-curb deployments with competitors, prompting one incumbent to announce an accelerated fiber rollout.

But two consumer groups, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union, decried the ruling as bad for competition. The two groups said in a joint press release that the decision will stop competitors from accessing the fiber necessary to provide advanced services and result in higher prices and slower innovation.

“The FCC today took our country one giant step closer toward solidifying a two-company domination -- the local cable and telephone providers -- over the consumer Internet market,” Gene Kimmelman, senior policy director for Consumers Union, said in the press release. “As both industries tighten their hold on high-speed Internet access, consumers will see their choices diminish and their bills skyrocket.”

Commissioners supporting the decision called it a step toward consistency with rules that allow the incumbent telephone carriers, often called the regional Bells, from sharing most fiber-to-the-home network facilities with competitors. The FCC in its triennial review order finalized in August 2003 argued that the forced sharing of fiber to the home as part of unbundled network element (UNE) rules discourage the four large regional Bells from rolling out new fiber, necessary for advanced broadband services.

"I see no reason why our regulatory framework should favor one type of (fiber) architecture over the other," said FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy. "Rather, deployment decisions should turn on business considerations."

Fiber-to-the-curb loops, where fiber is extended to within 500 feet of a customer's premises, are covered by the new FCC action. Commissioners supporting the decision said fiber to the curb can provide many of the same benefits, including voice and advanced video services, that fiber to the home can.

The UNE rules, a set of regulations forcing the Bells to share part of their networks at discounted prices, were originally designed to foster competition among telecommunications services by giving competitors to the Bells a way to offer services without building their own networks. The Bells inherited much of their networks after the breakup of the old AT&T in the early 1980s, but the FCC in recent years has moved toward encouraging Bell competitors to build their own telecommunications networks.

After the FCC vote Thursday, incumbent SBC Communications said it plans to accelerate its fiber rollout, reaching 18 million U.S. homes in two to three years, rather than five years as previously announced. SBC plans to deploy 38,800 miles of fiber at a cost of $4 billion to $6 billion, according to the company.

“The shovel is in the ground, and we are ready to go,” SBC Chairman and CEO Edward Whitacre said in a statement. “Rational rules promote innovation and investment in new networks and services for consumers. And so with this positive policy movement, the delivery of next-generation broadband and video services is no longer at some distant point in the future. The future is now.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps opposed the decision, saying it encourages monopolies. "The loop represents the prized last mile of communications," he said. "Putting it beyond the reach of competitors can only entrench incumbents who already hold sway. Monopoly control of the last mile created all kinds of problems for basic telephone service in the last century, and now we seem bent on replicating that sad story for advanced services in the digital age."

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