The FCC concluded in its Sixth Broadband Deployment Report released yesterday that between 14 million and 24 million Americans still lack access to broadband, adding “the immediate prospects for deployment to them are bleak.”

Also known as the “706 Report,” the report includes for the first time a comprehensive list of unserved areas, compiled from data not previously available to the FCC.

And, most surprising, the FCC will change its definition of what “high-speed broadband” really means. It plans to upgrade its much-criticized standard from 200 kilobits per second downstream, a standard set more than 10 years ago when Web pages were largely text-based, to 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. “This is a minimum speed generally required for using today’s video-rich broadband applications and services, while retaining sufficient capacity for basic Web browsing and e-mail,” it said. “The Commission’s standard will evolve over time.”

A commission statement said, “This report underscores the need for comprehensive reform of the Universal Service Fund, innovative approaches to unleashing new spectrum, and removal of barriers to infrastructure investment. In an era when broadband has become essential for U.S. jobs, economic growth, global competitiveness and democratic engagement, millions of Americans live in areas without broadband. Many of these Americans are poor or live in rural areas that will remain unserved without reform of the universal service program and other changes to U.S. broadband policy that spur investment in broadband networks by lowering the cost of deployment.”

“The report we release today uses new data and improved analysis to take an honest look at the current state of broadband in America. Consistent with the findings of the National Broadband Plan, the report points out the great broadband successes in the United States, including as many as 290 million Americans who have gained access to broadband over the past decade. But the statute requires more,” commented FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “It requires the agency to reach a conclusion about whether all—not some, not most—Americans are being served in a reasonable and timely fashion. In other words, it requires a conclusion about whether the United States is on the road to achieving truly universal broadband availability, of the kind that our country achieved in the previous century with respect to traditional telephone service.”

He continued, “The best available data shows that between 14 and 24 million Americans live in areas where they cannot get broadband.  These are mostly expensive-to-serve areas with low population density. Without substantial reforms to the agency’s universal service programs, these areas will continue to be unserved, denied access to the transformative power of broadband.”

The FCC admits its goal of universal availability (as outlined in its National Broadband Plan) – deployment to all Americans – “is not being met in a timely way.” As a result, it proposes some tweaks to that plan to speed the process:

Reform the FCC’s universal service programs to support broadband through public-private partnerships;

  • Unleash spectrum for mobile broadband;
  • Reduce barriers to infrastructure investment, including delays in access to poles and rights-of-way; and
  • Collect better broadband data to assist policymakers and consumers. 

Two other commissioners affirmed the new report (Editor’s note: the following statements have been edited for length. Commissioners’ entire statements can be read at www.fcc.gov.):
 
Michael J. Copps – “The sixth time is the charm. By relying on an inadequate and unrefined approach to data collection for the previous five reports, the Commission seriously defaulted on its statutory responsibility. In early data collection exercises, the Commission used information from service providers that simply reported on which zip codes had at least one subscriber to broadband service at a speed of 200 Kbps or higher.

“The false impression left by that approach was that everyone in a zip code was fully connected to high-speed broadband when all we really knew was that one person or business somewhere—perhaps on the very fringe of a zip code—subscribed to a minimum-speed service. As such, it found that the percentage of zip codes with at least one broadband subscriber—97 percent of the zip codes—adequately reflected the percentage of the population with access to broadband, and found, therefore, that all broadband was being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

He also noted that new and more accurate data is being collected via Census Tract instead of zip code.
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Mignon L. Clyburn – “I believe that where companies have had a business case to offer broadband service, they have done so. Nonetheless, there are many geographic areas in the U.S. where broadband still is not available because it is not economical for the private sector to deploy broadband and offer service. It is appropriate that the Commission fully consider the recommendations made in the National Broadband Plan to encourage broadband deployment, including for example, comprehensive reform of the universal service fund.

“Universal availability, however, will be in vain unless we have universal adoption of broadband as well. Nearly 93 million Americans have not adopted broadband at home. Cost is the most cited reason for not subscribing to broadband service. Other commonly cited barriers to adoption include digital literacy and relevancy. I support the development of a Digital Literacy Corps – a group that will be dedicated to ensuring all Americans recognize the many benefits of broadband and are comfortable with digital technology.”

And two commissioners dissented:

Robert M. McDowell – “I am concerned that this Report fails to provide sufficient justification as to why the Commission is reversing course from previous reports. ?Instead of focusing on the great strides that America has made in broadband deployment, as the Act requires, this Report emphasizes subscribership. Collecting granular data, including subscribership numbers, is important. But subscribership data does not equate to the “availability” of broadband, which is what Congress requires the Commission to assess under Section 706.  

“In many instances the Report confuses the facts by substituting the terms ‘deployment’ and ‘subscribership’ as if they were synonymous and interchangeable. They are not.  Today, however, the majority is sidelining the deployment figure of 95 percent in favor of a seemingly smaller subscribership number. It is only reasonable to question the rationale behind this confusing pivot.

“I am concerned that regulating with a light touch is not what this current Report will be used for in the future. I question whether this Report will be used to justify additional regulation, contrary to the Act’s goal of “removing barriers to infrastructure investment. The Commission should focus its resources and energy on connecting the 7 million households that currently do not have access to high-speed Internet. Reforming our Universal Service subsidy program coupled with opening windows of opportunity for the construction of new delivery platforms, such as wireless broadband, can be accomplished without contorting data and conclusions or laying a predicate for more regulation. Doing the latter only undermines the pursuit of our Congressional directives.”

Meredith A. Baker – “In a striking departure from that decade of consistent Commission findings, the Commission has changed course by concluding that broadband deployment now is not reasonable and timely. Broadband infrastructure deployment and investment are a remarkable and continuing success story, and I am troubled by giving such significant efforts a failing grade.?

“The Report focuses almost exclusively on terrestrial broadband options. Section 706 is not technology specific, yet this Report limits its findings to terrestrial solutions even when discussing relatively low speeds of service easily reached by today’s wireless and satellite offerings. Current technologies may not allow competition at higher speeds, but satellite broadband, 3G and 4G wireless solutions do provide a level of connectivity that is ‘broadband’ to most consumers, as well as the additional functionality of mobility.  ?

“The Commission should not adopt National Broadband Plan findings and recommendations without opportunity for notice and comment as well as Commission deliberation. We should not adopt the 4Mbps/1Mbps speed threshold as the definition of ‘broadband’ without conducting our own due diligence. The National Broadband Plan reports that more than half of consumers that could purchase 4 Mbps/1 Mbps broadband have concluded that a slower offering is more than sufficient for their broadband needs.”

Baker also is concerned that the FCC’s proposals to “shift broadband Internet access services to monopoly-era Title II requirements will undermine the regulatory certainty and stable foundation that has attracted capital to this sector to date, and will be necessary to fund tomorrow’s broadband networks. The Commission should maintain the existing minimal regulatory approach under Title I and work proactively with carriers and investors to target actions to attract more capital and resources to support broadband networks, particularly in unserved and underserved communities.”

-Debra Baker

The Daily

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