Wednesday, April 18, 2007

FCC begins inquiry on broadband deployment

The Federal Communications Commission, apparently chastened by its poor data gathering methods to determine whether broadband services are being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion as required by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has undertaken an effort to get better data.

The FCC issued a notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to explore alternative methodology to replace its much criticized Zip code-based parameters that deemed broadband being offered if only one customer in the Zip code has service at a speed of least 200kbs.

The Commission is reassessing how to define broadband in light of the rapid technological changes occurring in the marketplace, including the development of higher speed services and new broadband platforms. The Commission will also focus on the availability of broadband, including in rural and other hard-to-serve areas; on whether consumers are adopting new services; and on the level of competition in the marketplace. The Commission also wants to determine what can be done to accelerate the rollout of broadband services, and seeks comment on current investment trends in the industry. The Commission also seeks comment on external data sources that shed light on broadband prices and the extent to which consumers have a choice of competing providers of broadband service in the United States, ideally on a house-by-house and business-by-business basis, as well as comparable data on speed, price, availability, and adoption in other countries.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said the proceeding is long overdue, warning the United States is falling behind the rest of the world on broadband access and cost.

We can start by facing up to our problem and doing our level best to diagnose its causes. We need to know why so many Americans do not have broadband, and why those who do (or think they do) are paying twice as much for connections one-twentieth as fast those enjoyed by customers in some other countries. This is not just an exercise in self-flagellation (though we certainly deserve that by now).

Rather, it is the first step in coming up with some solutions that can start to reverse our nation’s slide into technological and communications mediocrity.

Copps also lamented a decade wasted with poor data gathering efforts that have left gaping broadband black holes in much of the U.S. produced by "commercial and regulatory missteps."

If the Commission had prudently invested in better broadband data-gathering a decade ago, I believe we’d all be better off—not just the government, but more importantly, consumers and industry. We’d have a better handle on how to fix the problem because we’d have a better understanding of the problem. We would already have granular data, reported by carriers, on the range of broadband speeds and prices that consumers in urban, suburban, exurban, rural and tribal areas currently face. We would know which factors—like age, gender, education, race, income, disability status, and so forth—most affect consumer broadband decisions. We would understand how various markets respond to numerous variables. We could already be using our section 706 reports to inform Congress and the country of the realities of the broadband world as the basis for charting, finally, a strategy for the ubiquitous penetration of truly competitive high-speed broadband. I don’t believe we’d be 21st in the world had we gone down that road. But that was the road not taken.

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