FCC Report: Broadband Not Being Deployed to All

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"[T]aking account of the millions of Americans who, despite years of waiting, still have little prospect of getting broadband deployed to their homes, we must conclude that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion," FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said in announcing the release of the FCC's latest report to Congress on the availability of broadband.

"Fortunately, the National Broadband Plan has charted a course to accelerate broadband investment and help ensure that all Americans can connect to the vital infrastructure of the 21st century," he added.

The chairman said that the statutory standard is "all," and that despite the success story of as many as 290 million Americans getting access to broadband in the last decade, the law "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."

By that measure, Genachowski and the report suggest,that the country does not measure up.

According to the so-called 706 report, between 14 million and 24 million people do not have access to broadband and that "the immediate prospects for deployment are bleak." According to the commission, the report backs Universal Service reform, turning spectrum over to wireless broadband, and removing barriers to investment in infrastructure, all elements of the national plan.

The plan also deep-sixes the FCC's former 200 kbps downstream standard for what qualitified in the report as getting broadband service. The new standard is 4 Mbps downstream and one Mbps upstream.

Genachowksi said the report was a reminder that the FCC has to "move swiftly" to implement the plan's recommendations. He did not add, but has suggested before, that to implement all those recommendations without a potential parade of lawsuits the FCC will need to clarify its broadband regulatory authority.

The report was voted on July 16. The vote was 3-2, with the two Republicans dissenting. Dissenting voices had already been weighing in on the report after its main thrust was leaked to the press.

Senior Republican Robert McDowell took issue with the report in no uncertain terms. 'Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that the FCC determine whether "advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.' In all previous reports dating back to 1999, the FCC has answered "yes" to that question. In this Report, however, the answer is 'no' for the first time," said McDowell. "This 180 degree reversal is unsettling considering that since the issuance of the Commission's first Section 706 Report, America has made impressive improvements in developing and deploying broadband infrastructure and services."

McDowell accused the report of "confusing the facts" by using "deployment" and subscribership" as though they were interchangeable. "Today, 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," he said.

The FCC signaled last summer that it was taking a new approach to the survey, including upping the speed definition of broadband and no longer using ZIP codes as a unit of broadband measure because by that reckoning a ZIP code with as few as one subscriber qualified as broadband service for the whole ZIP code.

"Broadband infrastructure deployment and investment are a remarkable and continuing success story," Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker said in her dissent, "and I am troubled by giving such significant efforts a failing grade."

She also argued that the report is supposed to be on whether network providers are making reasonable progress towards the goal of universal availability, not that they have failed if that goal was not reached in 2010. "The question is whether network providers continue to make demonstrable progress towards that [Universal Service] goal," she said. "All evidence suggests that answer be made in the affirmative."

Finally, Baker suggested that Genachowski's proposed reclassification of broadband under Title II regs would work against the universal service goal in the report. "I have concerns that the 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," she said, "and will be necessary to fund tomorrow's broadband networks."

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