Saturday, May 21, 2011

FCC: "Significant and persistent" Internet infrastructure deployment gap leaves 26 million Americans offline

The Federal Communications Commission reports this week that a "significant and persistent deployment gap" in Internet telecommunications infrastructure deprives as many as 26 million Americans from Internet access.
"This significant and persistent deployment gap is particularly concerning in light of the substantial and growing costs of digital exclusion: Being unable to subscribe to broadband in 2011 is a much bigger obstacle to healthcare, educational, and employment opportunities that are essential for consumer welfare and America’s economic growth and global competitiveness than it was even a few years ago," the FCC notes in its seventh annual report to Congress on the availability of advanced telecommunications capability as mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

"We thus must conclude that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, and we underscore how much work remains before we can conclude that all Americans are served by broadband."

In addition, the FCC rejected arguments by mobile wireless providers that their service constitutes Internet infrastructure that's sufficiently robust at at time when the Internet is becoming an all purpose telecommunications system transporting an exponentially growing amount of voice, data and video traffic.

"While use of mobile broadband is growing, that growth to date is mainly in lower speed ranges that may not be able to support the applications and services identified by Congress, such as high-quality video," the FCC's report states. "MetroPCS and others ask the Commission to reverse its conclusion, given the prevalence of wireless technology," the report continues. "While MetroPCS and others have noted the general expansion of mobile wireless across the country, they failed to demonstrate that wireless broadband is provided at 4 Mbps/1 Mbps actual speed (or reasonable proxy) in the unserved areas."

Most importantly, the FCC identifies the key reason why so many Americans remain disconnected: investor owned providers can't profitably earn a return on their investment -- mostly upfront and ongoing labor costs -- in order to justify building out their networks to serve more premises. "In the absence of programs that provide additional support, the private sector will not bring broadband to Americans living in areas where there is no business case for operating a broadband network," the report states.

Short of labor costs declining dramatically, that will continue to be the case. And unless communities explore alternative nonprofit business models such as municipal and cooperatively-owned open access fiber to the premises infrastructure, the FCC will continue to report on a "significant and persistent" infrastructure gap next year and subsequent years.

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