WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission started off the new year as it ended the old one: telling Internet-service providers — in this case cable and other fixed-broadband operators — that they were failing to build out high-speed Internet service in a reasonable and timely manner.
The agency made the same conclusion about wireless broadband providers last month.
Commissioners will get to weigh in on the report at their Jan. 28 meeting, but the conclusion has already been drawn.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced the verdict in a blog titled “Kickstarting the New Year.” For wired broadband providers, though, it felt more like a swift kick.
34 MILLION UNSERVED
Wheeler said 34 million Americans, and 40% of those in rural areas, lacked access to fixed high-speed broadband.
“That’s not good enough,” he said.
The report also said it based its conclusion on the fact that 41% of schools had not met the FCC’s benchmark of 100 Megabits per second per 1,000 students. It also concluded that both mobile and wired connections were needed to fulfill the promise of broadband.
“Fixed broadband can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely,” the report concluded.
The FCC’s conclusion was no real surprise, but it was made despite the report’s own accounting of strong year-over-year progress. For example, the share of Americans found to be lacking access to fixed broadband decreased from 20% in 2012 to 17% in 2013 to 10% in 2014 — the last year for which the agency has a figure.
In urban areas, the share of those lacking access fell from 11% in 2012 to 8% in 2013, then to only 4% in 2014.
If the FCC finds that advanced telecommunications services aren’t being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner, the agency is — arguably — authorized to pull some regulatory levers to make it so.
That’s the crux of the agency’s authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Some argue, though, that the FCC misreads or misuses that authority, which has received so much attention in the network- neutrality debate and which the agency has used to justify Open Internet regulations — with the counterpunch of Title II authority now also being employed.
Wheeler’s fact sheet on the report makes that point explicitly, citing under ongoing FCC efforts to increase broadband deployment, the “Open Internet order ensures an open platform for network and application innovations, which drive increased consumer demand for faster, better broadband.”
Apparently, politics plays as much of a role as pole attachments in determining the extent of the U.S. broadband buildout.
Earlier reports, under Republican FCC chairmen, had found the buildout to be timely. But starting with Wheeler’s predecessor, Julius Genachowski, Democratic commissions have concluded that is not the case.
The report does not increase the FCC’s aspirational definition of fixed high-speed broadband as 25 Mbps, as set in last year’s document. It also leaves the definition of mobile high-speed broadband for another day.
PROVIDERS PUSH BACK
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association essentially told the FCC to take the report and, well, reassess it.
“The reality is that progress in deploying broadband in America has been reasonable and timely,” the trade group said, adding, “Despite the significant, year-over-year advances in broadband capabilities underscored in the commission’s own data, the conclusions of the FCC’s 706 Report continue an alarming trend of ignoring objectivity and facts in order to serve political ends and maximize agency power.
“Once again, the FCC arbitrarily defines ‘broadband’ as requiring a 25 Mbps connection (notwithstanding its lower 10 Mbps standard used when doling out universal-service support) and, in so doing, diminishes the report’s value and chooses expediency over honest assessment,” the trade group continued.
Walter McCormick, president of USTelecom, which also represents fixed-broadband providers, agreed.
“This annual process has become a cynical exercise, one that eschews dispassionate analysis and is patently intended to reach a predetermined conclusion that will justify a continuing expansion of the agency’s own regulatory reach,” he said.
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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.
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