FCC Has Questions About Broadband Speeds and Deployment
Tuesday, November 14, 2023
FCC Has Questions About Broadband Speeds and Deployment
And don't forget adoption, affordability, availability, and equitable access
On November 1, 2023, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its "annual" inquiry into the state of broadband in the United States. The inquiry includes three broad questions:
- What constitutes "broadband service" today?
- Is the U.S. achieving its universal broadband goals?
- Is broadband being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion?
The FCC is seeking public input on these questions through December 1.
I. What constitutes "broadband service" today?
As part of this inquiry over the years, the FCC has set a speed benchmark defining when “fixed broadband service”—that is, service that is fixed to a specific location such as a home, as opposed to mobile broadband service—provides "advanced telecommunications capability." The FCC uses this benchmark to assess broadband deployment across the country.
Of note, earlier this year, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the FCC's process for setting a minimum fixed broadband speed that it uses as a benchmark. GAO found inconsistencies in the reported scope of the FCC’s analysis of benchmark speed and its reported rationale for updating or not updating the benchmark. GAO told Congress that without consistently communicating the scope of its analysis and its rationale for setting the benchmark, the FCC’s reporting lacks transparency. GAO recommended that the FCC provide consistent communication in its reporting on how the agency determines whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed and when updating the related metrics that the FCC uses to assess broadband speeds and deployment. The FCC agreed with the recommendation that transparency and consistency are important principles to follow in this inquiry. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel recently told Congress that this inquiry was revised in line with GAO's recommendation and that "the FCC is committed to data-driven decisions on the advanced telecommunications capability evaluation metrics, as well as vigorous engagement with the record that is developed as part of the public comment process."
Although the FCC has sought public comment on its broadband benchmark speeds for a number of years, the last time the agency increased the standards was in 2015, setting the benchmark at 25 megabits per second (Mbps) when downloading, which refers to the number of bits per second that travel to a user’s device, and 3 Mbps when uploading, which refers to the number of bits per second that travel from a user’s device (an often used shorthand for this is 25/3 Mbps). The FCC does not consider internet service at speeds lower than 25/3 Mbps to provide advanced telecommunications capability.
In this year's inquiry, the FCC is proposing to increase the existing fixed broadband speed benchmark of 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps. And the FCC is proposing a long-term fixed broadband speed goal of 1,000 Mbps, or 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), download speed paired with 500 Mbps upload speed (1G/500 Mbps).
To justify raising the standard to 100/20 Mbps, the FCC points to the language of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which defines any area as "underserved" if there is no access available to broadband networks capable of delivering 100/20 Mbps service. "In light of Congress’ judgment that areas receiving broadband speeds of less than 100/20 Mbps are not adequately served, we believe that our speed benchmark for fixed advanced telecommunications capability must be updated to at least the 100/20 Mbps level," the FCC said.
In addition to Congress' determination in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the FCC also points to changes in consumers' home internet use, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- As of December 2022, the mean download speed for all residential broadband subscriptions was 440 Mbps while the median residential download speed was 300 Mbps, and nearly 78 percent of all residential subscriptions had a download speed of at least 100 Mbps;
- Bandwidth consumption continues to increase steadily and shows no sign of stopping;
- Subscribers work: 27 percent of private-sector establishments have some or all of their employees teleworking some or all of the time (over 11% say all of their employees teleworked all of the time), and over 95 percent expect current levels of telework to stay the same over the next six months;
- Subscribers learn from home more: virtual school enrollment across ten states increased 176 percent in the 2021-22 school year and students who are attending school in person are still relying on home connectivity for schoolwork outside of school hours;
- More devices connect to home networks—and for longer periods of time;
- There's more wide-spread teleworking and continued expansion of telehealth; 72 percent of medical groups expect patient demand for telehealth to stay the same or increase in 2023; and
- Households tend to subscribe to services meeting a 100 Mbps download speed threshold where it is available—
- As of December 2022, over 91 million households subscriber to services meeting a 100 Mbps download speed threshold
The FCC seeks comment on the proposal to adopt 100/20 Mbps as the benchmark speed for fixed broadband service to constitute “advanced telecommunications capability.”
- Do you agree that the changes in telehealth, work, and e-learning patterns, the market behavior of consumers and ISPs, and recent policy developments requiring higher speed services necessitate a speed benchmark of at least 100/20 Mbps?
- Do you believe a different speed benchmark is appropriate? Should the benchmark be set at an even higher speed? Is there a need for a symmetrical benchmark like 100/100 Mbps or 500/500 Mbps?
- Would increasing the benchmark have any effect on broadband competition? For instance, if the benchmark was increased to 100/20 Mbps, would that artificially reduce the appearance of competition by limiting the number of providers or technologies that the FCC reports as providing advanced telecommunications capability?
- Is it necessary for the FCC to examine particular consumer use cases in selecting a speed benchmark? If so, what do such use cases demonstrate? Which online applications, use cases, and technologies do you believe a sufficient number of consumers are using today and will use in the foreseeable future? How can the FCC set relevant speed and other broadband thresholds to enable those applications, use cases, and technologies?
- Small businesses have expressed the need for faster speeds than the FCC's current benchmark; what are the needs of small businesses with respect to broadband that the FCC should take into account in determining a speed benchmark?
The FCC also seeks comment on the proposal to adopt a long-term speed goal for fixed broadband service, with a benchmark of 1 Gbps/500 Mbps:
- Would an aspirational standard encourage deployment?
- How should the FCC define “long-term”? (Of note, the length of support for many FCC high-cost programs is 10 years.)
- Would a different speed than 1 Gbps/500 Mbps be a more appropriate long-term benchmark?
- Should the FCC adopt a symmetrical long-term benchmark?
- The FCC also seeks comment on the online applications, use cases, and technologies that commenters believe consumers may use that would be supported by this long-term benchmark.
Service Quality vs Speed
Recognizing that other factors, besides the speed of a broadband connection, can affect consumers’ ability to use online services effectively, the FCC seeks comment on whether and to what extent additional factors should be considered in determining what qualifies as broadband service. Additional factors include: latency (the measure of the time it takes a packet of data to travel from one point in the network to another, and which is typically measured by round-trip time in milliseconds (ms)), actual (as opposed to advertised) speed received, consistency of speed, and data allowances (sometimes called data caps).
Mobile Broadband Service
The FCC has not adopted a mobile broadband benchmark in previous inquiries primarily due to the inherent variability in the performance characteristics of mobile service, both geographically and temporally. The FCC has instead evaluated the deployment of mobile broadband services using multiple metrics like LTE coverage data where mobile service providers reported a minimum advertised or expected speed of 5/1 Mbps—and then supplemented these provider-reported data with Ookla speed test data.
The FCC is now collecting both mobile and fixed broadband availability data through the Broadband Data Collection, and has already collected three rounds of data (as of June 30, 2022, as of December 31, 2022, and as of June 30, 2023). That data was included in the National Broadband Map. The FCC now proposes to use the two mobile datasets for this inquiry.
- Should the FCC adopt a speed benchmark to assess whether mobile services provide advanced telecommunications capability, and if so, what should that benchmark be?
- Should the FCC consider using one of the Broadband Data Collection availability speed thresholds (for example, a minimum speed of 35/3 Mbps) as a benchmark for determining whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion?
- Are there other speed benchmarks the FCC should consider? Or should the FCC refrain from adopting a standardized speed benchmark at this time?
- Should the FCC consider only 5G in determining whether mobile services provide advanced telecommunications capability or still continue to report 4G LTE?
Number of Providers
The FCC is proposing to include in this inquiry an assessment of the number of fixed and mobile broadband provider options to which consumers have access.
- Do you agree that examining the number of providers available to consumers would help the FCC understand barriers to deployment because the number of providers may correlate, at least to some degree, with such barriers? Would this measure also help gauge more competitive pricing and better quality of service?
- Are there any conclusions that the FCC could draw based on this information?
- Should the FCC assess the number of broadband providers on an individual location basis (if data are available), census block basis, or a more aggregated level such as census block group?
Fixed vs Mobile Broadband Service
In considering the extent of substitutability between fixed and mobile services, the FCC has recognized that consumers have distinct broadband uses in the home and on the go. These services are often marketed as complementary and the FCC has previously cited evidence that consumers who have the means to subscribe to both mobile and fixed services are likely to subscribe to both. All to say that mobile and fixed broadband services may not be substitutes for all consumers’ needs. The FCC seeks public comment on whether to continue not treating fixed and mobile services as full substitutes. And the FCC seeks comment on the degree of substitutability between mobile and fixed services and how that has changed over time.
- Does broadband deployment require access to both fixed and mobile broadband services?
- What data exist concerning the cross-elasticity of demand between the services?
- How do the plan characteristics of typical fixed and mobile broadband service plans compare—for example, in terms of price, data allowances, throttling policies, overage fees, etc.?
The FCC is proposing to present:
- the percentage of Americans with access to fixed services meeting its broadband benchmarks;
- the percentage of Americans with access to mobile services meeting certain stated characteristics (whether these characteristics constitute a benchmark or otherwise); and
- the percentage of Americans with access to both fixed broadband service meeting the broadband benchmarks and mobile services meeting certain stated characteristics (whether these characteristics constitute a benchmark or otherwise).
II. Is the U.S. achieving its universal broadband goals?
Deployment, affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access. These are the universal service goals for broadband and the FCC seeks comment on how to define these goals, how these goals can be evaluated, and what data is available to assess each goal.
The FCC is proposing to evaluate whether broadband has been universally deployed by evaluating the physical deployment of broadband networks that are capable of providing service at what we select as our speed benchmark(s) for advanced telecommunications capability.
The FCC seeks comment on this proposal. Are there alternative ways for the FCC to evaluate the universal service broadband goal of deployment? For instance, is there available data on the number of additional miles of fiber built, new tower construction, or new spectrum licenses that would assist us in our inquiry?
For the first time, the FCC is proposing to use the broadband availability data collected by the Broadband Data Collection to evaluate physical deployment.
The FCC seeks comment on this proposal.
Do you agree that the Broadband DATA Act requires the FCC to use the National Broadband Map “to determine the areas in which . . . broadband internet access service is and is not available; and . . . when making any new award of funding with respect to the deployment of broadband internet access service intended for use by residential and mobile customers” as the primary source in this inquiry?
- Are there additional data that the should use to supplement the its data, such as BroadbandNow’s quarterly reports?
- Do other sources measure speeds that would be relevant to the FCC's analysis? Are those sources sufficiently comprehensive geographically?
- Should the FCC use data from National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Treasury Department, or other federal, state, or local sources in conjunction with FCC data to assess the state of fixed deployment?
- How can the FCC ensure that fixed broadband deployment data received outside of its own process are reliable?
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to compile a list of geographic areas lacking broadband access. The FCC is further required to provide population, population density, and average per capita income for each of these unserved areas. Income, however, is only one demographic category—other categories may also be significant. In addition to fulfilling the minimum requirements of the law, are geographically disaggregated data sources available that would enable the FCC to provide additional demographic information regarding both deployment and adoption of for example, for example, considering the unserved population by race, ethnicity, age, or disability status?
School and Classroom Broadband Access
The Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to focus on the deployment and availability of advanced telecommunications capability to “elementary and secondary schools and classrooms." Since 2015, the FCC has used two speed benchmarks to measure deployment for schools: (1) a short-term speed benchmark of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff, and (2) a long-term speed benchmark of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff. As of 2019, 99 percent of school districts have met the 100 Mbps goal. The FCC seeks comment on whether the agency should increase either or both of the short and long term goals.
Specifically, the FCC proposes raising the short-term speed benchmark to 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff, which would necessitate also raising the long-term goal.
- If the FCC increases either goal, are there adequate data sources to use in its assessment? If so, what are they?
- Should the FCC consider student access to broadband outside of school, and if so, how?
- How should the FCC measure broadband deployment on Tribal lands?
- Are the considerations regarding the FCC’s deployment data for Tribal lands any different than for non-Tribal lands? For example, are there alternative sources of data concerning broadband deployment on Tribal lands? If so, how should the FCC incorporate the data from such sources into its analyses of broadband deployment on Tribal lands?
- The FCC invites parties to comment on our manner of presenting data regarding Tribal lands and whether a different or more extensive method of disaggregation would be useful and practical.
Far too many households across the country wrestle with how to pay for gas and groceries and also keep up with the broadband bill, and the lack of access to and adoption of home broadband has amplified and reinforced existing inequities in our society. To truly close the connectivity gap and ensure that all Americans have access to advanced telecommunications capability, broadband services must be affordable. The FCC seeks comment on how it should measure affordability as part of this inquiry.
- Can low adoption rates for particular services indicate that the service is perceived as not affordable rather than merely demonstrating the revealed preferences of consumers given their overall service requirements and budget constraints?
- What other factors may lead to differential subscription rates for higher speed services between higher income and lower income areas?
- To what extent do the answers to these questions depend on the technology deployed, such as mobile, fixed terrestrial, fixed wireless, or fixed satellite?
- Should the FCC examine prices for broadband services and compare them against a selected benchmark to determine affordability?
- Are there other methods of measuring affordability? If the FCC were to compare price to a benchmark, are there adequate sources to enable the agency to adopt a benchmark? To what would the FCC compare the price information that the agency collects? Could the FCC use as a benchmark a percentage of a certain level of income?
- How would the FCC take into account the fact that a single household might have multiple mobile accounts (either individually or grouped into a family plan) while it would likely only have a single fixed broadband account?
- Should a household be able to afford mobile and fixed broadband service simultaneously in order for advanced telecommunications capability to be available to them? Should an affordability determination change depending on the area of the country the FCC is evaluating?
- How should the FCC account for federal and state programs that provide broadband consumer subsidies, such as the Lifeline program, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, and the Affordable Connectivity Program?
- What data should the FCC use to measure the affordability of service? Is the adoption rate a sufficient proxy, at least for services for which the FCC is able to calculate valid adoption rates?
- Is there a way for the FCC to conduct such an analysis while accounting for the factors that drive consumer decisions concerning what kind of broadband service to purchase?
The FCC is proposing to examine the universal service goal of adoption by examining the rate at which people who have a service available to them actually subscribe to the service.
The FCC seeks comment on this proposal and whether there are alternative ways to conceive of adoption.
Availability of broadband service refers to consumers’ ability to purchase broadband service in areas where service is physically deployed. Broadband service may be physically deployed to a location but the wiring of a building may not support all of its tenants. For purposes of this universal service goal and in the context of this inquiry, the FCC seeks comment on factors that lead to a service being physically deployed but unavailable in certain locations.
Are there other elements of service availability that the FCC should consider? For instance, should this goal be understood to encompass the quality of broadband service, including, for example, the frequency of service outages? If so, what criteria should the FCC rely upon to define availability for the purposes of this inquiry? Is there quantitative or qualitative data that the FCC can rely upon to analyze service availability for this purpose?
The FCC—as part of its continuing effort to advance digital equity for all, including people of color, persons with disabilities, persons who live in rural or Tribal areas, and others who are or have been historically underserved, marginalized, or adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality—invites comment on any equity-related considerations and benefits (if any) that may be associated with the proposals and issues discussed in this inquiry. Specifically, the FCC seeks comment on how its proposals may promote or inhibit advances in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, as well the scope of the Commission’s relevant legal authority.
- Can the FCC identify a lack of equitable access from the revealed preferences of consumers given their overall service requirements and budget constraints?
- The lack of broadband availability on Tribal Lands appears to be particularly acute. Are there steps that this inquiry can and should take to address diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility?
- What additional steps can the FCC take to promote equitable access to broadband?
III. Is broadband being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion?
- If universal access is the benchmark by which the FCC should examine physical deployment, what benchmarks should the agency use to evaluate the goals of adoption, availability, and equitable access?
- Can anything less than universal access in these areas be sufficient to reach a positive finding?
- How does the FCC adequately determine if these goals have been fulfilled to sufficiently merit a positive finding?
- Are any issues with the available data significant enough, either individually or cumulatively, to prevent the FCC from making a definitive finding, regardless of what the data may show? Would use of any supplemental sources or methods of verification be sufficient to allow the FCC to make a definitive finding? Is there sufficient data to evaluate the proposed non-deployment universal service goals?
- What actions should the FCC take to further the universal service goals for broadband, both in the immediate future and over the long-term?
- What can the FCC do to further promote competition?
- Are there currently regulatory barriers that exist which impede broadband deployment or investment that the FCC should consider eliminating?
- Are there additional efforts the FCC can undertake to encourage more private investment in broadband buildout?
- Would a long term strategy to coordinate Federal broadband programs help to advance the goals of this inquiry?
Your Chance to Weigh In
The FCC is accepting public comment in this proceeding through December 1, 2023 with reply comments due December 18. As the FCC admits, this fresh look at the agency's standards for evaluating broadband deployment and availability, the quality of its available data, and the framework used to make its findings is long overdue. The FCC seeks objective data and other evidence to evaluate the universal service goals for broadband—and it encourages individual consumers, providers of broadband services, consumer advocates, analysts, policy institutes, governmental entities, and all other interested parties to help determine the most effective ways to complete this task. Please capitalize on the invitation to participate and help set the standards for broadband service should be in the U.S.
[Please review the FCC's Notice of Inquiry. For those scoring at home, this is GN Docket No. 22-270.]
- U.S. law does not require FCC to set a benchmark speed to measure broadband deployment or to follow a set process for measuring deployment, beyond issuing a notice of inquiry and completing it within 180 days.
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