Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Prospective FCC chair on defining underserved areas

A key task assigned to the Federal Communications Commission in the broadband infrastructure buildout subsidies in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is to define what constitutes "unserved" and "underserved" areas of the nation for the purpose of allocating funding.

There tends to be general agreement when it comes to defining unserved: locations stuck in 1993 and still relegated to dial up or at the tender mercies of substandard satellite Internet providers who charge a lot of money for usage capped, high latency connections better described as molasses net.

However, when it comes to underserved, there's less consensus and the debate tends to center on the level of throughput that defines broadband. Last year, the FCC set a low standard of 768 Kbs in one direction that's already too slow and outmoded.

Julius Genachowski, President Barack Obama's nominee to chair the FCC, offered a broader definition of underserved to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at his confirmation hearing Tuesday.

Underserved could be defined not only as substandard throughput speed, according to this IDG News Service report at Yahoo!Tech on Genachowski's testimony. It could also mean those areas where broadband adoption is low or where there are pockets of unserved areas in places that generally have broadband, Genachowski told the committee.

Under the latter "pockets" definition, much of the United States would be deemed underserved because of the incomplete, helter skelter deployment of broadband infrastructure over the past decade. In fact, these pockets are so numerous that accurate mapping of broadband availability wouldn't produce a usable map but rather something that looks more like a display of the moon's surface with the countless craters representing various sized broadband black spots. Or a disorganized "hodge podge" as the Communication Workers of America has described the nation's telecommunications infrastructure.

Underpowered DSL signals peter out and can't reliably provide service. Cable company cable runs suddenly and arbitrarily stop. Consequently, one premises may enjoy broadband access -- sometimes from both telco DSL and cable -- while another just down the street or road or even next door does not. For years, visitors to this blog have come to it after performing searches that go along the lines of "My neighbor can get broadband and I can't/why not."

The danger of attempting to define what "underserved" means is that the exercise lends itself to subjective, self serving interpretations that can further delay broadband infrastructure deployment that should have been in place years ago for many more years. Instead of defining the broadband deficits, the goal should be to define and focus on the nation's desired broadband assets. President Obama has done that by calling for ubiquitous broadband access. We should work backward from that goal.

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