(Adds AT&T, consumer comments, broadcast ownership detail)
By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON, April 8 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators fired the opening salvo on Wednesday in a debate over how to vault the United States from a trailing position among industrialized nations in offering high-speed Internet to all its citizens.
The Federal Communications Commission, taking orders from Congress, has until February 2010 to draw up a strategy to bring high-speed Internet to nearly half of the U.S. population — many in low-income and rural areas — that does not get it.
“We are coming to grips with the fact that we have a long way to go to get high-speed value-laden broadband out to all citizens,” acting FCC chief Michael Copps told a public meeting.
A report for the United Nations out this week said the U.S. has fallen to 17th from 11th in a survey of the use by advanced nations of information and communications technology, which took into account adoption, speed and literacy.
The plan will address controversial issues as Internet openness, affordability and connection speed.
The Obama Administration’s nearly $800 billion stimulus legislation ordered the plan and allocated $7.2 billion in funds the government will dole out to promote expansion.
Copps and Obama have both heralded the technology as a means to fuel economic growth in areas, including healthcare and education.
Robert McDowell, the sole Republican on the FCC, said the plan should not include any “counterproductive government mandates.”
It “must allow network operators a reasonable opportunity to pay back investors,” he said.
Those views echo those of many in the telecommunications industry, which in general oppose mandates for openness that prevent Internet providers from discriminating as they route Internet traffic.
McDowell is among those who refute the UN and other groups’ international data portraying the U.S. broadband picture as dismal.
AT&T Inc (T.N) said it hopes the agency uses the opportunity to revamp the FCC’s universal service program, which pays to fund universal telephone service.
Current policies were “conceived for the voice-centric wonders of the black rotary phone and (are) not conducive to the dynamic world of broadband,” AT&T vice president Bob Quinn said in an email.
Consumer groups want the FCC to use the plan to compile data they say will show the last decade of deregulatory policies under mostly Republican leadership failed to spur competition.
“Under the last administration’s wait-and-see approach, competition disappeared, speeds stagnated, prices went through the roof and the open Internet was placed in jeopardy,” said Derek Turner, research director of Free Press.
Free Press and others faulted the FCC in recent years for exempting telephone and cable companies from regulations, including abandoning line-sharing, which requires big companies to share access lines with competitors.
Speeds for broadband in the United States are among the slowest compared with industrialized nations such as Japan, France and Sweden, while prices are among the steepest, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Public interest groups also want the FCC to boost speeds that can be labeled broadband speed.
The FCC now defines broadband speed at about 768 kilobits per second, slow by most standards, most experts agree.
Conventional dial-up is about 56 kilobits per second, but cable companies offer high-speed Internet at typically a minimum of 1 megabit per second and, in most cases, more than that.
Obama’s choice to lead the FCC is Julius Genachowski, a former executive at IAC/Interactive IACI.O and technology investor. His nomination is making its way through Senate confirmation, which is expected.
In a separate proceeding, the FCC voted to increase data collection requirements to better determine the extent of women and minority ownership in broadcasting. (Editing by Andre Grenon)