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FCC Again Says Broadband Deployment Is on Track

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Communications continues to consider progress towards universal high-speed broadband service as sufficient to declare that advanced telecommunications is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

For the second year in a row, the agency’s Republican majority has voted to reach that conclusion following several years when a Democratic- controlled FCC declared that not to be the case. That Democratic view was considered overly pessimistic — and calculatedly so — by Republicans and internet-service providers.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai

FCC chairman Ajit Pai

In making the reasonable and timely declaration, the FCC is instead giving a passing grade to both private and government deployment efforts.

The FCC’s Obama-era Democratic majority under Tom Wheeler had focused on the “all” in that congressional (Section 706) mandate, signaling that until high speed broadband was available to every last American, deployment wasn’t reasonable or timely.

Pai is Reluctant to Regulate

But Pai, as the minority commissioner, always bristled at the “all or not good enough” calls, particularly since Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act includes a mandate for the FCC to regulate broadband to get that answer to “yes.”

A new wrinkle in the report is that the carrier data it is based on (the so-called Form 477) has come under increasing scrutiny and even pretty general agreement that, overall, the FCC data and the maps it uses to identify where high-speed broadband is and isn’t has itself been found wanting.

Microsoft, which wants to use TV spectrum to fill in the gaps, pointedly made that point following the report’s release. “There is strong evidence, including the FCC’s own subscription data and Microsoft data, that broadband is not available to millions of people in America even though the FCC’s data says it is,” John Kahan, the tech company’s chief data analytics officer, said.

It did not help that the first draft of the FCC’s Section 706 broadband deployment report was based on inflated numbers due to an overestimate by one carrier. That slip-up not only led to a report do-over, but to questions about whether there were other mistakes that had not been uncovered. Also unhelpful was that the error was discovered by activist group Free Press, not by the FCC itself.

The reissued report, which not surprisingly was approved on a party line vote with two strong Democratic dissents, still found that progress was being made, just not quite as much as originally billed.

As John Horrigan, senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, pointed out, the 2012 report, under Democrat Julius Genachowski, found that 19 million Americans lacking high-speed internet access was not reasonable and timely deployment, while the 2019 report found that 21.3 million lacking access was.

Horrigan was not suggesting there had not been improvement since then: it is actually an apples-to-faster-apples comparison, as the 2012 definition of high-speed was 3 Megabits per second downstream while 2019’s is 25 Mbps. Horrigan made the point that how those who lack access are treated is in part a political calculation, with Democrats wanting freer rein to regulate. Horrigan also suggested, and likely correctly, that a Republican FCC would take a more liberal view of what constituted progress toward universal service.

Providers Stress Investment, Challenges

ISPs have always argued that they were making good progress — progress the Section 706 report should recognize — with hundreds of billions of dollars invested over the past two decades and high-speed available in 90% of a large country with a variegated population, with areas where there are many more cows passed than homes.

Certainly that was the Republicans’ view in suggesting that the digital divide was narrowing substantially, while conceding there was still a gap to be bridged. Democrats pointed to the issues with the FCC data and suggested the GOP’s thumbs-up was akin to the George W. Bush Administration’s premature “Mission Accomplished” call on the second Iraq war.

The Republican FCC was not overtly declaring victory but was declaring reasonable progress toward closing the digital divide, one of Pai’s prime directives.

Republicans have long argued that the “reasonable and timely” test is about such progress toward a universal service horizon — the Rome-wasn’t-built-in-a-day view — not about declaring failure, and thus justifying regulation, until every last American has high-speed broadband.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.