The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote next week on an annual report about the state of high-speed Internet deployment around the country, something that has become a magnet for debate.
A proposed draft of the congressionally mandated report finds that advanced telecommunications capability isn’t being deployed in a “reasonable and timely fashion” to all Americans. According to a fact sheet released by the agency, 34 million Americans do not have access to wired internet service that meets the FCC’s definition of broadband — download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.
The commission also found that the divide between rural and urban Americans when it comes to broadband access persists. Thirty-nine percent of rural residents don’t have access to wired broadband, according to the report
“To maximize the benefits of broadband for the American people, we not only need to facilitate innovation in areas like public safety and civic engagement, but also to make sure all Americans have advanced communications capabilities,” said commission Chairman Tom Wheeler in a blog post. “The Commission has a statutory mandate to assess and report annually on whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”
But critics say the report isn’t just a compendium of statistics, but a way for the FCC to expand its authority and place arbitrary standards on Internet service providers.
The commission is authorized to take steps to expand access when the annual report finds it lacking, which critics contend turns the report into a tool for amassing more authority.
The FCC sparked controversy when it raised the benchmark speeds for wired broadband to their current levels last year and forced Internet providers to rethink their offerings.
That decision seems certain to loom over the commission’s discussion on Thursday about the latest iteration of the report.
“It's bad enough the FCC keeps moving the goal posts on their definition of broadband, apparently so they can continue to justify intervening in obviously competitive markets,” said Jim Cicconi, AT&T senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, in a statement earlier this month.“It's beginning to look like the FCC will define broadband whichever way maximizes its power under whichever section of the law they want to apply.”
Some in Congress share the concerns of industry. In a letter sent this week to Wheeler, six Republican senators questioned the commission’s decision to use a lower benchmark for a program to expand broadband access in rural communities. They fretted that the FCC might more-tightly regulate providers offering speeds higher than the current standard.
Other elements of the report could spark debate as well. The commission found, for example, that “advanced telecommunications capability” requires that customers be able to access both wired and wireless broadband internet.
Meredith Rose, staff attorney for the interest group Public Knowledge, said that the group supported the definition “because consumers use the two for different things, because there are certain limitations that are inherent in wireless broadband and mobile broadband technologies that just don’t exist or don’t exist in the same degree in fixed broadband."
Others disagree. Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said in a statement last year that “the idea that we should tie our section 706 report finding to the belief that consumers must have both [fixed and wireless broadband] is flawed and strains credibility" because speeds could increase substantially for mobile broadband in the coming years.
Also absent from the report is a standard definition for how fast mobile internet has to be to be considered broadband. Rose said that the process of establishing that benchmark will take some time, and is complicated by the fact that the speed of wireless internet varies based on more factors than with wired broadband.
"It actually literally changes with the phase of the moon in some cases,” she said. “Because it’s such a complex issue, if the commission decides to sit down and say, ‘We’re going to do a particular set of metrics for this,’ it’s going to be a long process. And because the mobile question has only really started to take center stage in the last couple of years, it just hasn’t gotten to that stage yet."