3500 Days of The National Broadband Plan

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Digital Beat

3500 Days of The National Broadband Plan

Christopher Terry

In early 2009, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a National Broadband Plan with a functional objective to ensure every American has “access to broadband capability.”

Now, with just 165 days left before the National Broadband Plan was to meet the plan’s original stated objectives, I explore some of the key components and objectives of the plan developed across 36 public workshops, 31 public notices, 9 public hearings, and approximately 23,000 comments from more than 700 parties.

The Congressional mandate was forward-thinking certainly, and the plan was ambitious. “Congress...required that this plan include a detailed strategy for achieving affordability and maximizing use of broadband to advance consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, employee training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth, and other national purposes.”

At the beginning of the process, the FCC expected universal broadband deployment to generate benefits across a wide range of areas including:

  • Health care. Broadband can help improve the quality and lower the cost of health care through health information technology and improved data capture and use.
  • Education. Broadband can enable improvements in public education through e-learning and online content, which can provide more personalized learning opportunities for students.
  • Energy and the environment. Broadband can play a major role in the transition to a clean energy economy.
  • Economic opportunity. Broadband can expand access to jobs and training, support entrepreneurship and small business growth, and strengthen community development efforts.
  • Government performance and civic engagement. Within government, broadband can increase civic engagement by making government more open and transparent, creating a robust public media ecosystem, and modernizing the democratic process.
  • Public safety and homeland security. Broadband can bolster efforts to improve public safety and homeland security.

The plan recognized that the government can influence the broadband ecosystem in four ways. First, the government can design policies to ensure robust competition. Second, the government is positioned to ensure efficient allocation and management of assets. Next, as part of the plans for broadband deployment, the government could reform (and update) universal service mechanisms. Finally, the government could reform laws, policies, standards, and incentives to make broadband more market-friendly and to promote entry.

The six stated goals of the National Broadband Plan included ambitious benchmarks for speed, and objectives ranging from universal access, to public safety and even clean energy management.

  • Goal No. 1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.
  • Goal No. 2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.
  • Goal No. 3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
  • Goal No. 4: Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and government buildings.
  • Goal No. 5: To ensure the safety of the American people, every first responder should have access to a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband public safety network.
  • Goal No. 6: To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption.

The FCC, as it has done for many policy initiatives since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, relied heavily on competition theory when initially developing and implementing the broadband plan. The plan included language proposing to “[u]ndertake a comprehensive review of wholesale competition rules to help ensure competition.” Despite the heavy focus on economics, the plan did anticipate issues like internet service provider transparency for consumers and even included a proposal for user data privacy:

“Clarify the relationship between users and their online profiles to enable continued innovation and competition in applications and ensure consumer privacy, including the obligations of firms collecting personal information to allow consumers to know what information is being collected, consent to such collection, correct it if necessary, and control disclosure of such personal information to third parties.”

Now, 3500 days after the release of the plan, the FCC continues to try different approaches to assist broadband development. While nominally continuing to favor a marketplace approach, throughout 2019 the FCC has made a number of rolling announcements of block subsidies to be used over a 10-year period to assist in broadband deployment. And, to be fair to the agency, any progress towards the stated goals of the plan is to be commended.

But the praise must be limited because if we go by the stated metrics for assessing the plan’s six goals, the plan is far from achieving its objectives. According to FCC data, in 2018 the U.S. ranked tenth out of twenty-eight countries for broadband download speed, seventh out of twenty-nine for fixed-broadband price and tenth for mobile-broadband price.

Importantly, goal number 1 of the plan was ultimately pursued using a different benchmark by the FCC, namely broadband service with download speed of 25 Mbps and upload speed of 3 Mbps. Applying 25/3 as the metric (rather than 100/50 as proposed in the National Broadband Plan), 93.5 percent of the overall population had access by the end of 2017, far short of achieving the plan’s targets on speed and access. While the overall gap continues to shrink, targeted gaps in rural and tribal areas remain significant. According to FCC data, which has been criticized for overstating broadband deployment, over 26 percent of Americans in rural areas and 32 percent of Americans in Tribal lands lack access to 25/3, fixed-broadband.  Approximately two percent of urban areas still lack access to broadband as well.

Looking at goal number 4, the long-term connectivity goal for schools, libraries and other anchor institutions of 1 Gbps speeds, a 2018 estimate suggests just 28 percent of school districts currently meet the goal. Another objective we’ve failed to reach by the FCC’s own metric.

The public safety network proposed in goal number 5 will likely be on the agency’s radar moving forward, but less as an element of the broadband plan than as part of the remand issued by the DC Circuit in the Mozilla v. FCC decision a few weeks ago. While a public safety network represents a massive undertaking, and there has been some progress, like goal number 6 which would have promoted a green energy economy, a fully operational public safety broadband network will be another objective uncompleted during the time that is remaining in the plan.

Ten years is a great deal of time in the telecommunications realm, and it is true that the plan asked a great deal of the FCC from the very start. But it is just as true to say that the FCC has failed to deliver. The internet, and the broadband infrastructure that delivers it, are potentially the greatest tools for maximizing political participation in a democratic society. Making sure that high-speed, affordable internet service is available to as many people as possible is the criteria we should be using to evaluate the FCC. 3,500 days after the plan was released, it is clear the agency will not meet the plan’s stated benchmarks for speed, for universal access, for public safety communications, nor for access to high-speed broadband for anchor institutions like schools and libraries or to provide functional energy management controls. Each failure represents an unfilled public-interest objective.

It is time to make a new plan. A plan with realistic, incremental goals backed by the necessary subsidies, and a willingness to admit that the government has taken the lead on every communication system since the creation of the post office.  We can do better. But I am not sure we can afford to wait another 3,500 days to do so.

Christopher Terry is a publicly engaged scholar who is currently an assistant professor of media law and ethics in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. He was a commercial radio producer for nearly 15 years before receiving his Ph.D. in Mass Communication and Law from the University of Wisconsin. His research agenda involves maximizing the opportunities for political participation in a democratic society. He has published research on media ownership policy, minority ownership policy, indecency regulation and the regulation of political advertising.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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