Monday, June 16, 2008

FCC Expands Broadband Data Collection but Sidesteps Affordability Concerns

Accurate measurement of broadband deployment is needed to ascertain the degree to which the congressional goal of access to advanced telecommunications services at affordable rates is being met. On June 12, 2008, the Federal Communications Commission issued an Order which, it hopes, will increase the “precision and quality” of the broadband subscribership data it collects. Broadband service providers have been submitting data to the FCC every six months for years, but the lack of detail -- such as basing availability on ZIP Codes, considering all speeds at 200 kbps and above as “broadband,” and not gathering price information -- has rendered the resulting reports a poor measure of broadband access, affordability, and quality.

Specifically, the June 12th Order will make the following changes in broadband reporting:
  • Expand the number of broadband reporting speed tiers to capture more precise information about upload and download broadband speeds
  • Require broadband providers to report numbers of broadband subscribers by census tract, broken down by speed tier and technology type
  • Improve the accuracy of information the Commission gathers about mobile wireless broadband deployment

The Order seeks further comment on broadband service pricing and availability.

In a separate report released the same day, the FCC somehow claims that broadband services are “currently being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” See FCC Claims "Reasonable and Timely" Broadband Deployment.

Separate statements released with the Order by two of the Commissioners eloquently touch on two areas where the lack of adequate data reporting has the longest-lasting effect -- value or affordability of broadband and the need to distinguish between residential and business customers. Commissioner Michael J. Copps wrote:

It has therefore been with great disappointment that I have watched the FCC fail year after year to get serious about gathering high-quality U.S. broadband data. I’m sure my colleagues think I’m a broken record because I bring up this issue so often. But the truth remains that, time and time again, we have failed to heed the call of scholars, industry, consumers, and the Government Accounting Office to improve our data-gathering. It was starting to look like the FCC wanted to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This point has not been lost on Congress, which has moved forward recently on a bi-partisan basis with legislation to require the FCC and other branches of government to do what we should have been doing all along. I will spare you all my full broadband data stump speech today, except to say that it is truly shocking that we still rely on an absurdly dated definition of broadband speed and a 5-digit ZIP code methodology that didn’t pass the red face test even when we introduced it many years ago.

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Despite the many strides that today’s Order makes and my approval of many of these initiatives, in two parts I must limit myself to concurrence. First, I believe it is a mistake to defer action on gathering price information to a further notice of proposed rulemaking. Price is essential to understanding the value proposition that is available to American consumers -- our continued unwillingness to gather this critical information reduces the value of our broadband data reports. Value -- the price per bit -- after all, is broadband’s killer application, and if we don’t understand what kind of value broadband is bringing into people’s homes and offices, we can’t really understand where we are and what remains to be done. Second, I think it is a mistake not to require carriers to distinguish between business and residential broadband connections. The fact that many businesses in the Washington D.C. area subscribe to very expensive high-speed connections in the 100 megabit, 1 gigabit or faster range should not be conflated with the often far slower connections available to residential consumers.

Similarly, Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein added:

I am disappointed that we fail to take affirmative steps to improve our understanding of broadband affordability. To maintain our productivity edge, we must give our citizens communications tools that are equal or greater than those available to our global competitors. Particularly given the growing evidence that citizens of other countries are getting a much greater broadband value, in terms of price per megabit, it is regrettable that the Commission misses an opportunity to collect useful information about the actual prices available to American consumers. In addition, particularly as availability increases, affordability is likely to be an increasingly important factor influencing broadband adoption. I hope that the Commission can take up these issues, relegated to a Further Notice in this item, in the near future.

While the long-overdue data collection improvements will reap benefits in the long term with regard to understanding where broadband is truly available (and where a contemplated federal broadband universal service fund would be targeted), until the question of affordability by residential customers is addressed and analyzed, the United States will remain mired in the middle of the pack among industrialized nations for broadband deployment. Keep in mind that President Bush predicted in March 2004 that universal broadband deployment would be achieved by 2007. In March 2008, when announcing small State Broadband Council grants for “universal broadband,” New York Governor Paterson stated that “too many communities in New York State still lack sufficient broadband access.” The New York State Council for Universal Broadband is charged with developing strategies to ensure every New Yorker has access to affordable, high-speed Internet service.

Lou Manuta

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