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Obama Administration Gets Earful on Broadband Research

The Obama Administration is getting plenty of input on what information it should be collecting to help guide its mission of promoting universal broadband deployment, adoption and competition.

Comments were due this week on the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and National Science Foundation joint National Broadband Research Agenda, one of the September 2015 recommendations of the Broadband Opportunity Council (BOC), which was created in March 2015 by President Barack Obama and co-chaired by the Commerce Department (NTIA is an arm of Commerce) and the USDA, both of which oversaw billions in stimulus funds for broadband buildouts.

Mobile Future, representing wireless broadband providers, wants the research to focus on "existing regulatory and financial barriers to infrastructure deployment" as part of an effort to eliminate them. Their goal is reasonable costs and processes for rolling out 5G networks, so they want the government to study the impact of fees for rights of way, for example, or delays in processing applications, connecting to polls or accessing municipal infrastructure. 

The Benton Foundation, American Library Association, Media Mobilizing Project, New America’s Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge said that the research must take into account the specific needs of seniors, low-income families, persons with disabilities and people living in rural areas—all population groups they argue are usually ignored when developing new broadband policies. They also want the research to look at how to reach vulnerable communities during the IP transition, when some may be "left without robust access."

The FCC has been working on how to oversee that transition from copper to fiber, coax or wireless while making sure those populations are still connected to essential services.

The groups also want research into the impact of community broadband on competition, innovation, cost, quality and adoption. ISPs have argued against muni broadband efforts as potentially taxpayer-unfriendly overbuilds, while the FCC has pushed them as a way to extend deployment and create price and service competition.

Not surprisingly, the Fiber to the Home Council wants the administration to research a community's access to all-fiber infrastructure, which it says is critical as the nets transition from copper.

It is proposing a Community Fiber Density Index that would create a "density ratio" by tracking "all-fiber connectivity to connection points in a community—e.g. residential, commercial, institutional, and wireless transceivers (the numerator)—in relation to the total number of connection points in a community (the denominator)," which it presumes would demonstrate "how all-fiber networks drive overall economic growth and increase the value of residential single-family and multi-family housing units."

The President called for the creation of the BOC and the recommendations, saying access to high-speed was a necessity, not a luxury, a point the FCC has taken to heart under FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

The broadband report included four broad recommendations: modernize federal programs to expand support for investment, give communities the tools to expand broadband investment, expand access to federal assets, and improve data collection and analysis.

Among the actions the agencies will take are to 1) "Create an online inventory of data on federal assets"; 2) "streamline the applications for programs and broadband permitting processes to support broadband deployment and foster competition"; and 3) "create a portal for information on Federal broadband funding and loan programs to help communities easily identify resources as they seek to expand access to broadband."

The FCC, as an independent agency, is not subject to the President's executive order, which asked for recommendations that could be achieved through executive actions. But the FCC on a parallel track is migrating its Universal Service Fund to broadband, has taken steps to make it easier to deploy broadband plant, and tried to preempt state laws limiting municipal broadband buildouts, though that effort was overturned by the courts.

TechFreedom used the opportunity to hammer the FCC for its broadband data collection practices and regulatory approaches.

TechFreedom praised NTIA for stepping into an "analytical vacuum," which it laid at the feet of the FCC, which collects broadband deployment and adoption data as part of its Sec. 706 mandate to insure advanced telecommunications is being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner.

TechFreedom said the FCC has had "essentially free rein to manipulate the limited available data to suit its preconceived regulatory agenda," including using it to impose Title II regs on broadband and raising its target for high-speed broadband to "manufacture a continued negative finding about the state of broadband deployment to use
as the basis for increased regulation."

The group said NTIA should focus on econmic analysis, which should result in cutting red tape and lowering fees. "But before government starts throwing money at the problem, we need more careful analysis about what makes deployment expensive and how to get the biggest broadband bang for the taxpayer’s buck.”