Monday, February 22, 2010

FCC Releases Less-than-Useful Broadband Deployment Data

This month, the FCC its “High-Speed Services for Internet Access Status Report” for the period ending December 31, 2008. Not only does this document report on data which is over a year old, it tracks broadband as connections over 200 mbps in at least one direction. At that speed, not only is broadband availability grossly over-reported, downloading graphics or video streaming are not going to happen, but somehow this antiquated definition continues to haunt the FCC.
In any event, the report shows that New York State has over 7.4 million broadband connections, including 1.1 million DSL, 4.1 million cable modem, and 1.7 million mobile wireless devices. That puts NY on the same level as Texas and Florida, far behind California, but well-ahead of other populous states like Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. DSL lines grew in NY from 737,000 in 2005 to 1.1 million in 2008 and cable modem grew from 2.2 million in 2005 to 4.1 million in 2008. Of these figures, 86.2% is residential and 13.8% is business. The report concludes that 79% of New Yorkers have DSL available to them and 99% have cable modem available, calculating a subscribership ratio of .72, trailing only Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New Jersey.

Under the Stimulus Plan, the federal government has committed $350 million to map broadband providers by census tract. Until that data is complete and the new minimum standard of 768 mbps is employed (which is still low for most purposes, such as for streaming video), it is questionable what this new report brings to the table. For PULP, since between 79% and 99% of New Yorkers have access to broadband, why do only 72% subscribe? Of course, once more accurate and modern data is considered, that percentage is sure to decrease. How can we better ensure more people can afford broadband and are aware of its benefits?

PULP has proposed a stopgap solution – in the absence of any effective national or state broadband affordability program – to stimulate better utilization of existing utility low income rate discounts, so that those now on budgets seemingly too tight to afford broadband could create enough headroom to subscribe. This would be combined with an intensive digital literacy program. Large numbers of New York households are eligible for utility rate discounts for telephone and energy services, but only a small proportion of those eligible are reached by the utilities. For example, there about 1.3 million readily identifiable Food Stamps households which qualify for substantial telephone service discounts through Lifeline, but participation hovers around only 644,000 (including wireless Lifeline customers) . In addition to working to expand participation in the existing utility discount programs, PULP also proposed to develop a model for achieving affordable broadband service similar to the Lifeline discount telephone service program and model consumer protections to help prevent households from losing the service.

Unless programs like those proposed by PULP are implemented, broadband subscribership will never approach anything resembling universal coverage and we’ll be stuck with speeds better suited for e-mail rather than downloading the latest movie or an online course textbook.

Lou Manuta

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