Is the FCC Asking the Right Questions About Broadband Deployment?

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, October 25, 2019

Weekly Digest

Is the FCC Asking the Right Questions About Broadband Deployment?

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of October 21-25

Kevin Taglang

On October 23, the Federal Communications Commission released a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), launching its annual review to determine if broadband is reaching all Americans in a timely fashion.  Finding in the negative, the FCC must take immediate action to accelerate broadband deployment by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.

Over the next seven weeks, the FCC will collect public input to help guide its analysis. Based on data on the state of broadband deployment at the end of 2017, the FCC concluded earlier this year that "the digital divide has narrowed substantially, and more Americans than ever before have access to high-speed broadband." Is the FCC likely to come to the same conclusion in its next broadband deployment report? Sometimes it depends on the questions you ask. 

It Depends on What the Meaning of 'Is Being' Is

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to “determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion” and report annually. The current majority at the FCC has noted that there's a big difference between "is being deployed" and "been deployed": 

[T]he statute requires that we determine whether advanced telecommunications capability ‘is being deployed to all Americans’—not whether it has already been deployed to all Americans. The statute does not require perfection; reading section 706(b) to require universal availability as a prerequisite for a positive finding would disregard the statute’s 'reasonable and timely' language. Our policymaking efforts over the last two years are promoting broadband deployment, and the data show that [broadband providers] are making strong progress in deploying advanced telecommunications capability to more and more Americans. These circumstances warrant a positive finding.

In the new proceeding, the FCC will again be comparing its most recent data on deployment of fixed and mobile services (we would guess as of December 31, 2018) to deployment of those services each year since 2014. "Congress," the FCC contends, "did not ask us to determine whether each and every American is served at this moment." The FCC invited public comment on this interpretation of Congressional intent. 

Is Wireless as Good as Wired Broadband?

In the last broadband deployment report, the FCC concluded that both fixed and mobile LTE services provide capabilities that satisfy the statutory definition of broadband. But there was insufficient evidence in the record to conclude that fixed and mobile broadband services are full substitutes in all cases. In other words, both fixed (basically in-home wired) service and mobile LTE service are "broadband," but there is not enough data to conclude that those services are full substitutes. So the FCC looked at the availability of fixed and mobile services over a five-year time period (2013–2017), using four categories: (1) those with fixed services available; (2) those with mobile LTE services available; (3) those with both fixed terrestrial and mobile LTE services available; and (4) those with at least one of either fixed terrestrial or mobile LTE services available.

The 2019 broadband report presented deployment figures for five speed metrics for fixed services (the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps fixed broadband speed benchmark, 10 Mbps/1 Mbps, 50 Mbps/5 Mbps, 100 Mbps/10 Mbps, and 250 Mbps/25 Mbps), and for two speed metrics for mobile LTE (5 Mbps/1 Mbps and 10 Mbps/3 Mbps). The FCC proposes to use these same metrics for this proceeding, and it seeks comment on that proposal: 

  • Have there been changes in marketplace and technological conditions that justify a different evaluative approach? If so, how should the FCC modify its previous conclusion regarding the substitutability of fixed and mobile broadband services?
  • Should mobile broadband be treated as a functional substitute for fixed wireline broadband? If so, how would the FCC adjust its approach?
  • Given that the FCC has previously determined that it should employ a benchmark speed for mobile services, what should that benchmark be?
  • Should the deployment of 5G wireless services affect the analysis?

Is 25/3 Still Really 'Advanced'?

The FCC proposed to maintain the current 25 Mbps/3 Mbps fixed broadband speed benchmark, saying there's no justification on the record for raising it. The FCC seeks comment on retaining the current benchmark first adopted in 2015

Of course, as we approach 2020, broadband connections in the United States regularly deliver 100 Mbps downloads and are increasingly capable of reaching 1 Gbps symmetrical speeds. According to one speed test in 2018, the average wireline download speed for consumers was 96.25 Mbps, with several states -- including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware -- averaging download speeds of 115 Mbps or more (and the average upload speed was 32.88 Mbps).

It is time for the FCC to reconsider the benchmark.

How Can the FCC Make Informed Decisions Based on Flawed Data?

The FCC collects broadband deployment data from internet service providers through something called Form 477. Form 477 data has been roundly criticized by Members of Congress and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And bills are lined up in Congress to address the issue. But in the new NOI, the FCC insists that the data are the most reliable and comprehensive currently available -- and it proposes to again use the FCC Form 477 data to evaluate deployment of fixed broadband services --understanding that it will overstate the deployment of broadband services throughout an area. The FCC seeks comment on the proposal and asks commenters to provide recommendations for alternative datasets or supplements to the FCC Form 477 data. 

Is the FCC Doing Enough to Close the Digital Divide?

The FCC's broadband report will examine its actions to spur broadband deployment. The FCC seeks comment on the ongoing effects of these efforts in spurring broadband deployment, as well as any additional efforts it might undertake. The FCC also seeks comment on the effectiveness of Universal Service Fund (USF) funding in driving broadband deployment.

Has the FCC been effective in its efforts to increase deployment by targeting USF funding to unserved areas in order to extend the reach of networks to all Americans? What more could or should we do to expand access to spectrum to support or supplement wireless and satellite broadband services?


The first round of comments in this NOI is due November 22. A second round of comments, in reply to the first round, is due December 9. Questions about the NOI can be directed to:

FCC Wireline Competition Bureau, Competition Policy Division
445 12th Street, S.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20554
(202) 418-1167
[email protected]

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Oct 28 -- Building A Thriving, Inclusive New Hampshire Economy (National Collaborative for Digital Equity)
Oct 29 -- Repurposing the C-Band to benefit All Americans (House Commerce Committee)
Oct 31 -- Access to Opportunity Conference (Multicultural Media Telecom & Internet Council)


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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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.