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US broadband seeks ISP speed stickers

Government mandated bandwidth exams

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Government-mandated ISP ratings, a new copyright symbol and a national poll database - just a taste of what you'll find in the new plan for America's next-generation broadband.

The National Broadband Plan has been presented to the US Congress and covers everything from ensuring that schools get decent broadband to providing them with the freedom to make use of it and getting 4Mb/sec to every American by 2020 without spending a penny of government money - at least no more than is already being spent.

The plan (pdf) runs to 400 pages but details dozens of proposals the FCC believes can deliver the world's fastest and most reliable wired and wireless networks, if they are all adopted by the federal government. Most of the plan's funding comes from flogging more radio spectrum, and we'll look in detail at radio-spectrum plans later. For the moment, we'll content ourselves with how the FCC sees fixed broadband changing over the next decade.

Mainly, the FCC sees a lot more of it and wants to help companies building out networks. This means federally-funded roads will be required to have conduit laid underneath them, and the plan requires a central register of that conduit (and the 134 million telegraph poles around the country) so that anyone building a network can see who owns what. San Francisco's "dig once" legislation, which requires notification of interested parties when a road is dug up, is held up as an example of what could be done nationally.

But once an ISP has a network the FCC wants to make sure it's advertised honestly. The plan recommends a federally-mandated rating scheme for broadband ISPs to help customers decide how fast they want to go:

ISP Ratings Card

Legally-mandated speed checking - it'll never happen over here

ISPs would be required to provide information on genuine connection speeds, and the FCC would check up on them too. The FCC reckons that 95 per cent of the US population already has access to 4Mb/sec and that money should be taken out of the Universal Service Fund - currently used to provide voice connections - to connect up that final five per cent.

Apparently 22 per cent of US households don't have a voice line these days, so the argument that it's an essential of modern life no longer applies - assuming one has broadband of some sort, so switching the money makes some sense.

But the FCC isn't just concerned with providing bandwidth. It also wants to ensure that the kit connected to that bandwidth is opened up to competition. Mobile handsets are already competitive - and computers too. But two manufacturers - Motorola and Cisco - own 95 per cent of the US set-top box market, and that's a concern to the FCC.

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