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News recap: FCC may jump in on municipal fiber network builds

The FCC says it will intervene if broadband carriers don't improve their offerings; a new LTE technology could impact Wi-Fi, setting up a confrontation.

In this week's news, the FCC says it's prepared to give cities money to build fiber networks if municipal broadband doesn't improve. Cellular carriers are developing LTE-U, which could intensify competition between telcos and cable providers.

Finally, Microsoft is releasing a slate of Skype for Business features later this year that it hopes will spur customers to replace landlines.

FCC ready for municipal fiber build outs

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may step in to preempt state laws that prevent the construction of municipal fiber networks, a top aide to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told a fiber-to-the-home conference in California. Counselor to the chairman Gigi Sohn said the commission is set to intervene, if necessary, and has already done so in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C.  The FCC would also invest in the build-outs, tapping Universal Service Fund subsidies that municipalities can access if the large telecoms don't claim the money first, Sohn added.
Sohn criticized commercial Broadband network providers, saying they were "not up to the task to meet the needs of today's Internet users." Sohn said the FCC has increased its standard for high-speed service to 25 Mbps, but that one in six Americans still can't get what is said to be the minimum requirement for full use of the Internet.
In the Connect America Fund order that was issued last December, the FCC guaranteed broadband providers more than $10 billion over six years to deploy broadband in underserved areas, Sohn said.
"If the price cap providers" -- carriers not subject to the FCC's rate base/rate of return regulation -- "don't take advantage of these funds, other providers will be able to take their place, including municipal systems and electric cooperatives that want to deploy fiber networks," she said, according to Multichannel News.

LTE-U to move cellular carriers onto open airwaves

A new standard now under development by Verizon, Qualcomm and other telecom companies could interfere with Wi-Fi and pit cellular companies against cable operators.

The technology, LTE-U, travels on public airwaves, using the same frequencies as Wi-Fi, according to The Washington Post. If LTE-U is deployed by cellular carriers, it would put them in direct competition with cable companies that use Wi-Fi.

Industry engineers say LTE-U will deliver faster speeds and downloads, and that it will be most effective in crowded areas, like cities and universities, where networks get congested, The Post said.

LTE-U is said to be the industry's solution for providers to pick up customers who now drop their cellular connections when they are in range of a Wi-Fi network. Internet consumption on data networks is being throttled because of traffic diverted to Wi-Fi networks. The Post, citing figures from Cisco's Visual Networking Index, said data carried on cellular networks grew 69% last year. If Wi-Fi hadn't been available as an alternative, cellular data traffic would have grown 84%.

Keeping customers on Wi-Fi is important to cable operators, who have found ways for their customers to use services outside of their home Wi-Fi networks. The cable industry operates about 400,000 Wi-Fi hotspots today, compared to about 100,000 in 2012. According to The Post, LTE-U's backers say they have taken steps to ensure the standard won't interfere with Wi-Fi. And carriers realize that Wi-Fi helps ease congestion when their cellular networks are over-subscribed. But even as they need each other, they'll also become more direct competitors.

New Skype phone and meeting services to be released this year

Microsoft is adding new capabilities to Skype for Business, as the vendor attempts to entice enterprises to replace their current phone networks.

The new features are part of Microsoft's Office 365 products, and are part of a concentrated effort by Microsoft to restructure its business around cloud computing and mobile software, according to Bloomberg Business.

The new features include call forwarding, and callers will know whether the person they're calling is at a desk or mobile phone. Skype for Business customers will also have the option to keep their existing phone lines in place while using Microsoft's features due to agreements Microsoft signed with telecom partners. Skype Meeting Broadcast will enable companies to hold meetings with as many as 10,000 people who can join via a Web browser or mobile device, Bloomberg said.

The new features will be available later this year.

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