FCC takes first steps toward broadband plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators proposed to make broadband access the focus of subsidized telecommunications for the poor and rural areas, a first step in tackling an ambitious plan to provide high-speed Internet to all Americans.

The Federal Communications Commission unanimously proposed the shift in the goal of the Universal Service Fund despite a recent court ruling that called into question the agency’s authority over the Internet.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski did not say at Wednesday’s open meeting of the agency whether it would reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, one possible option to give the agency a solid legal footing.

A U.S. appeals court ruled earlier in April that the FCC failed to show it had the authority to stop Comcast Corp from blocking online applications for distributing television shows and other large, bandwidth-hogging files.

The ruling dealt a blow to proponents of Net Neutrality, who argue providers should treat all traffic on the Internet equally, and to the FCC’s authority.

In other actions on Wednesday, the five-member FCC agreed to approve an order requiring phone companies like AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc to provide reasonable voice service roaming agreements for wireless companies that provide mobile broadband services.

That reverses a 2007 rule that allowed for excluding certain competitors in certain markets.

The FCC also proposed requiring similar roaming agreements for data services.

“The FCC’s action today is pro-competitive and takes appropriate measures to level the playing field amongst wireless carriers,” said Tom Sugrue, Vice President for Government Affairs at T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG.

The commission also agreed to move ahead with an inquiry to bring more innovation and competition to the set-top box industry dominated by Motorola Inc and Cisco Systems Inc’s Scientific-Atlanta.

The FCC wants to allow manufacturers to sell a standardized set-top box that would integrate content on the Internet, cable and satellite, video discs and over-the-air broadcasts.

Under such a scenario, consumers would be able to buy a standardized box that can be sold at retailers like Target Corp, Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Best Buy Co Inc.

Such a product would help the FCC’s push for more broadband adoption by Americans and at the same time it could improve access to online video platforms like Google Inc’s YouTube and Netflix Inc.

The commission also agreed to examine how existing broadband networks would fare during natural disasters, terror attacks and pandemic events.

Reporting by John Poirier; Editing by Tim Dobbyn