The FCC’s most recent 181-page broadband progress report is not garnering good press right now, with commissioners split along party lines when it comes to broadband uptake and questions about the agency’s interpretation of how Congress wants progress measured.

(The background: Congress, in Section 706 the Telecommunications Act of 1996, requires the FCC to report annually on whether broadband “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”)

“The United States has now regained global leadership in key areas of the broadband economy, including mobile, where we lead in mobile apps and 4G deployment; but, in this flat, competitive global economy, we need to keep driving toward faster broadband and universal access,” commented Chairman Julius Genachowski, adding, “Some look at the progress that’s being made and say, ‘mission accomplished.’ I disagree. Our data show that 19 million Americans remain without access to fixed broadband.  The residents and business owners I met with in California and Nevada will finally get broadband in the coming months—but millions more, especially in rural areas and Tribal lands, are still waiting.  And until we fully implement our Connect America reforms, this gap won’t close.  In this context, we cannot declare that broadband deployment to all Americans is “reasonable and timely.

He continued, “Our data also show that a significant broadband adoption gap remains—fewer than 70 percent of Americans have subscribed to fixed broadband, even counting speeds as low as 768 Kbps.  We have to continue striking at the barriers that are keeping Americans offline.”

The report says that even though great deployment strides have been made along with regulatory reform at the FCC itself, “approximately 19 million Americans — 6 percent of the population — still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population — 14.5 million people — lack access to this service. In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access. Even in areas where broadband is available, approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe.”

The report concludes that “until the Commission’s Connect America reforms are fully implemented, these gaps are unlikely to close. Because millions still lack access to or have not adopted broadband, the Report concludes broadband is not yet being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The Dissenters

The chairman’s opinion that things still are not moving as fast as they should regarding universal broadband connectivity are not shared by others.

Commissioner Robert McDowell noted, “It is discouraging that, for the third year in a row, the majority has decided to clutch to its earlier negative findings as to whether ‘advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion” pursuant to Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In reality, the growth of broadband deployment in America, especially regarding the mobile marketplace, has been swift and strong.  For instance, between 2003 and 2009, broadband deployment steadily increased from reaching 15 percent of Americans to 95 percent of Americans.”

Added Commissioner Ajit Pai, “Despite our general economic problems and the current regulatory environment, the private sector deserves credit for what it has been able to accomplish recently when it comes to infrastructure investment.  Communications network operators invested $66 billion in 2011. According to State Broadband Initiative data, private sector investment brought fixed terrestrial broadband service meeting the Commission’s speed benchmark to 7.4 million Americans and mobile broadband service to 46.7 million Americans” from June 2010 to June 2011.”

Pai continued, “The report sets aside this evidence because, under its reading of the statute, progress is irrelevant. ‘[T]he standard against which we measure our progress is universal broadband deployment,’ it maintains, and ‘approximately 19 million Americans did not have access to fixed broadband [in 2011].’ In other words, because fixed broadband service meeting the Commission’s speed benchmark is not already (or very soon to be) available to all Americans, ‘broadband is not yet being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.’”

Richard Bennett, senior research fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says, "The FCC’s latest ‘706 Report’ on the progress of broadband deployment in the United States reaches the erroneous conclusion that we’re not making reasonable progress toward bringing broadband networking to all Americans. The report’s conclusions are not supported by the evidence, do not conform to the statutory direction of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and overlook the non-adoption problem that actually dwarfs the deployment problem by an enormous degree.”  

“In fact,” he adds, “America’s broadband infrastructure is moving in the right direction, and is doing so at a reasonable and even commendable rate. Average broadband connection speed in the United States has risen from 22nd to 15th in the last two years according to Akamai, a majority of the world’s LTE users are in the United States, and LTE networks are beginning to reach rural areas where the best wired options fail to meet the FCC’s own definition of true broadband service. We’re never going to bring wired broadband connections to the far reaches of rural America without massive subsidies, so the goal should be to deploy appropriate technologies at a reasonable subsidy level.”

Bennett concludes, “A holistic analysis of the U.S. broadband infrastructure must reach the conclusion that we’re making ‘reasonable progress’ as a nation. It’s unfortunate that the FCC’s institutional structure, which views wired and wireless networks as antagonistic services, prevents it from seeing that a variety of technologies are capable of meeting residential networking needs. This is the third consecutive ‘706 report’ to exhibit these errors. Congress should clarify the intent of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to prevent future analytical errors by the Commission."

To read the entire report, click here

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