FCC: Broadband prospects bleak for up to 24 million

Recommended policy fixes include reforming the universal service fund, which subsidizes telecommunications service for low-income subscribers, unleashing spectrum for mobile broadband, and removing of barriers to infrastructure investment.

"Fortunately, the National Broadband Plan has charted a course to accelerate broadband investment and help ensure that all Americans can connect to the vital infrastructure of the 21st century," he said.

Both Republican commissioners dissented from the findings, questioning why the FCC would decide broadband is not being deployed in a timely manner after concluding the opposite in every report since 1999.

Commissioner Robert McDowell said the report should not have taken a "180 degree reversal" from its previous studies, which have found that broadband is being deployed in a timely and reasonable manner. Republican Commissioner Meredith Baker echoed the concern.

"By every possible metric, wired, wireless and satellite companies continue to pour billions of dollars into our nation’s broadband network," Baker said. 

Broadband providers were not impressed with the report.


AT&T's senior federal regulatory vice president Bob Quinn on Tuesday called the report an "unreasonable conclusion" on the company's blog.

"To the extent that this report provides momentum to finally fix the long-broken universal service/intercarrier compensation problem, and to remove actual economic barriers to broadband investment, then that is a positive development," he said.

"However, to the extent it is used as pretext to justify more investment-choking regulation a la the Title II debate, we will have squandered another opportunity to address the real broadband issues in this country," he added.

Verizon's Kathleen Grillo, senior vice president for federal regulatory affairs, was similarly unmoved.

“It makes no sense that, after the National Broadband Plan concluded that 95 percent of Americans have access to wireline broadband, the FCC majority now suggests broadband deployment is not reasonable and timely," she said.

"We hope that the FCC’s finding is not used as a justification to roll back the bipartisan, pro-investment policies that have brought broadband to 290 million Americans.” 

FCC reactions excerpted below.

CHAIRMAN JULIUS GENACHOWSKI

"The report we release today uses new data and improved analysis to take an honest look at the current state of broadband in America.  Consistent with the findings of the National Broadband Plan, the report points out the great broadband successes in the United States, including as many as 290 million Americans who have gained access to broadband over the past decade.  But the statute requires more.  It requires the agency to reach a conclusion about whether all—not some, not most—Americans are being served in a reasonable and timely fashion.  In other words, it requires a conclusion about whether the United States is on the road to achieving truly universal broadband availability, of the kind that our country achieved in the previous century with respect to traditional telephone service. On Congress’s question of universality—whether all Americans are on track to being served—the best available data shows that between 14 and 24 million Americans live in areas where they cannot get broadband.  These are mostly expensive-to-serve areas with low population density. Without substantial reforms to the agency’s universal service programs, these areas will continue to be unserved, denied access to the transformative power of broadband. So, taking account of the millions of Americans who, despite years of waiting, still have little prospect of getting broadband deployed to their homes, we must conclude that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion."

DEMOCRATIC COMMISSIONER MICHAEL COPPS

"The sixth time is the charm.  At last, a section 706 Report where broadband is really broadband, where zip codes are not surrogates for subscribers, and where the documented failure to connect millions upon millions of Americans disproves previous FCC findings that broadband is being reasonably and timely deployed. I am pleased to support the Broadband Deployment Report that we issue today."

DEMOCRATIC COMMISSIONER MIGNON CLYBURN

"I believe that it is appropriate for the Commission to conclude that broadband has not been deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to all Americans, especially given the additional broadband availability data from the National Broadband Plan that we rely upon in this Sixth Report.  In addition, I believe that where companies have had a business case to offer broadband service, they have done so.  Nonetheless, there are many geographic areas in the U.S. where broadband still is not available because it is not economical for the private sector to deploy broadband and offer service.  In order to remedy the lack of broadband availability, it is appropriate that the Commission fully consider the recommendations made in the National Broadband Plan to encourage broadband deployment, including for example, comprehensive reform of the universal service fund."

REPUBLICAN COMMISSIONER ROBERT McDOWELL

"Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that the FCC determine whether “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”  In all previous reports dating back to 1999, the FCC has answered “yes” to that question.  In this Report, however, the answer is “no” for the first time.  This 180 degree reversal is unsettling considering that since the issuance of the Commission’s first Section 706 Report, America has made impressive improvements in developing and deploying broadband infrastructure and services.  In fact, referencing findings from the National Broadband Plan, this Report even states that “95% of the U.S. population lives in housing units with access to terrestrial, fixed broadband infrastructure capable of supporting actual download speeds of at least 4 Mbps.”  I am concerned that this Report fails to provide sufficient justification as to why the Commission is reversing course from previous reports. Instead of focusing on the great strides that America has made in broadband deployment, as the Act requires, this Report emphasizes subscribership.  Collecting granular data, including subscribership numbers, is important.  But, subscribership data  does not equate to the “availability” of broadband, which is what Congress requires the Commission to assess under Section 706.  In many instances the Report confuses the facts by substituting the terms “deployment” and “subscribership” as if they were synonymous and interchangeable.  They are not.  “Deployment” and “subscribership” are two distinct concepts with different attributes and areas for improvement.  Our task is to focus on Congress’ explicit directive to analyze deployment progress for purposes of the Section 706 Report.  Today, however, the majority is sidelining the deployment figure of 95 percent in favor of a seemingly smaller subscribership number.  It is only reasonable to question the rationale behind this confusing pivot."

FCC COMMISSIONER MEREDITH BAKER

"The Commission’s obligation under section 706 is to evaluate broadband infrastructure deployment.  By every possible metric, wired, wireless, and satellite companies continue to pour billions of dollars into our nation’s broadband network.  From 2003 to 2009, under a consistent minimal regulatory framework, broadband providers have invested $27 billion annually in networks and infrastructure. Each year networks go further and faster.  The National Broadband Plan found that 95 percent of the U.S. population has access to a 4 Mbps/1 Mbps terrestrial broadband service, and 80 percent have choice of broadband offerings.In every prior Section 706 Report, the Commission concluded that broadband deployment was timely and reasonable.  In a striking departure from that decade of consistent Commission findings, the Commission has changed course by concluding that broadband deployment now is not reasonable and timely.  I cannot support this decision.  Broadband infrastructure deployment and investment are a remarkable and continuing success story, and I am troubled by giving such significant efforts a failing grade."