With 95% of U.S. households already having access to broadband service with download speeds of at least 4 Mbps – including 50% of homes with access to cable’s DOCSIS 3.0 speeds of 50 Mbps and faster – broadband in the U.S. is a success story that keeps getting better. Over the past decade, deployment of broadband throughout most of our country has created millions of jobs, added billions of dollars to our economy and unleashed innovators who are developing creative services and applications that have remarkably improved our quality of life.
While acknowledging these successes, the FCC’s Sixth Broadband Deployment Report – or 706 Report – nevertheless concludes that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans on a “reasonable and timely” basis because five percent of American households don’t have access to broadband with speeds of at least 4 Mbps.
It’s worth noting that the 4 Mbps threshold is new and represents a significant increase from the 768 Kbps used in the 2008 report, and the 200 Kbps used in the first four reports. We have no problem using a 4 Mbps threshold for defining broadband: I have argued for several years that 200 or 768 Kbps was an inadequate threshold for a policy definition of broadband (pages 5-6). But if the 706 Report is to retain any value as a measurement tool, the Commission must heed its own advice and use the definition as “a relatively static point at which to gauge progress and growth… from one Report to the next.” If the Commission continually increases the speed threshold to reflect “current demand patterns” and “estimated future demand” as it did this year, it becomes a circular nullity and it will be a certainty that deployment never will be considered reasonable and timely.
While we respectfully disagree with the report’s overall conclusion, I do understand and agree with some of the policy implications embedded in it. Why? Because the report plainly acknowledges that there is no reasonable business case to be made for extending broadband facilities to many of the unserved homes. So instead of viewing the report’s finding as an indictment of broadband providers, it’s perhaps better read as a statement of principle by the Chairman and two commissioners that, in their opinion, broadband already should be universally available, and, if there is no business case for that universal deployment, the government may have to step in to achieve it. So far as that goes, we agree. For example, we support the report’s call to action on specific items that will speed broadband deployment to unserved communities. Immediate FCC action on Universal Service Fund (USF) reform and pole attachment policy is critical to connecting unserved areas.
As explained in comments we filed last week, our industry strongly supports the USF reforms recommended in the National Broadband Plan (NBP). To fund the FCC’s broadband USF proposals, we recommend adopting our proposal – filed in a November 2009 rulemaking petition – to reduce subsidies in rural areas where ample phone competition exists. The sooner the Commission reduces unnecessary funding in the existing high-cost support program, the sooner it can direct funding to broadband deployment and adoption.
We also strongly support the recommendations in the NBP to establish low and more uniform rates for pole access, expedite the attachment process, and improve rights-of-way management. As we’ve explained in numerous pleadings, lowering the cost and improving the process for attaching broadband network to utility poles will make a significant difference in the business case for broadband in rural areas.
We appreciate that the report did not point to the Commission’s pending “Third Way” or “Open Internet” proceedings as potential solutions for connecting unserved areas. There has been, and will continue to be, extensive debate on the merits of the Commission’s proposals in those proceedings. But no one could credibly argue that adding Title II regulation, in any form, will have the effect of encouraging providers to invest in remote areas that they are not serving today.
But we’re disappointed with the Commission’s use of data in the report. The report relies almost completely on stale data, flawed data, or undisclosed data.
The key statistics in the report are drawn from Form 477 data for December 2008, data that was out of date when it was released earlier this year and is now 18 months old. Broadband providers have made two subsequent Form 477 filings (with another one scheduled in a few weeks), so the reliance on stale data is frustrating.
Equally troubling is the Commission’s repetition of the NBP’s claim that “actual” broadband speeds are only half of “advertised” speeds. After the NBP was released, we submitted an expert technical report demonstrating that the comScore data used was deeply flawed. Since then, cable and telco ISPs have been working constructively with Commission staff on a hardware-based testing regime that should produce more accurate results. Given the hard work that has been devoted to produce accurate speed measurements, it is disheartening that the 706 Report chose to perpetuate the NBP’s flawed speed data conclusions.
Finally, some of the data relied on in the 706 Report is not publicly available. The report relies extensively on a cost model created for the NBP, but that model hasn’t been released, making it impossible to validate its results. The Commission also repeatedly refers to an FCC staff report on international trends, but that report also has not been released.
The good news is that these data hurdles can be overcome, and the Commission is embarking on a major initiative to revamp its data collection and reporting processes.
As we continue to reflect on the findings of the 706 Report, keep in mind that broadband has been adopted faster than any other major consumer technology ever. We still have some work left to ensure that every American can reap the benefits of this service but let’s not lose sight of our success.