Holiday weekends are many things to the corporate world, and one of them is an opportunity to bury things they'd rather not have gain that much attention. In that finest of traditions, AT&T sent a letter to the FCC before the break responding to that call for information about its fiber deployments of earlier this month. In short, they're backing down and still planning to follow through on the plans, although we're not going to get to see just what those plans are since they were as usual heavily redacted.
AT&T had made public statements about suspending fiber-to-the-home rollouts given the uncertainty over network neutrality following President Obama's public entry into the debate a few weeks back. As with most knee-jerk reactions, it didn't have the hoped-for response. In addition, AT&T had also made promises about that roll-out in connection with the DirecTV merger, and that's an apple cart they'd rather not upset. So the suspended fiber deployment has in fact not been suspended, and the 25-city expansion will in fact continue - even if nobody yet knows which 25 cities they are talking about, the details of which were in the completely redacted, highly confidential section of the letter.
But AT&T's underlying point about uncertainty as an impediment to investment is a valid one, even if one disagrees with them on network neutrality. Like most regulatory issues the FCC deals with, this issue has been undecided for far too long. While the technological and business situations have evolved rapidly over the past 6-7 years, the debate has barely moved an inch. Minds have not been changed, and compromises have not found support. FCC Chairman Wheeler's most recent attempts have fewer friends than, say, a republican moderate in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Somehow we have to shift the debate into a more productive setting. The cable and telco operators need to realize that the public simply doesn't trust them to police themselves or believe that any innovations that might result from that arrangement would trickle down to them, and they aren't going to no matter how many letters their lawyers and PR firms draft to the FCC. Meanwhile, the public (and the advocacy groups that claim to represent them) need to recognize that the networks they depend on and see as a basic right are built only when they make their investors money. You can't tell them to just cross their fingers, build the infrastructure for the public good, and hope everything works out later on when the bill comes due -- they won't do it.
Yet neither side seems to be willing to do anything other than scoff at the other side's position, acting as if it isn't heartfelt. Yet in each case it is. And so, I find myself sympathizing with Wheeler this winter, even if his proposed solution is essentially just to trust a government agency to juggle the unjugglable indefinitely.
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