Got a Smartphone? Then You've Got Broadband!

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Robbie's Round-Up for the Week of August 7-11, 2017

It’s that time of year again. The Federal Communications Commission launched its annual inquiry into whether broadband (or, more formally, “advanced telecommunications capability”) is being deployed to all Americans in a “reasonable and timely fashion.” Although the FCC launched a proceeding in August 2016, asking a number of questions about broadband deployment, the commission did not issue a subsequent report.

Under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC is updating the inquiry and asking different questions. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, in response, raised some concerns over how the inquiry is being framed, and how this may lead to a particular outcome. The results of this inquiry will be significant, as they dictate future FCC broadband policy.

What the FCC is Asking in 2017

The questions about broadband deployment are different this year. The Notice of Inquiry (NOI) states, “In light of the changes in the industry and our recent actions to encourage broadband deployment, we propose to start this Inquiry afresh, with updated data and questions focused on the current progress of deployment of advanced telecommunications capability.”

Is cellular data access really the same thing as 'broadband'?

Evaluating Fixed And Mobile Access
The FCC is asking if its broadband deployment report should focus on whether some form of advanced telecommunications capability, be it fixed or mobile, is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. In previous reports, the FCC focused on fixed (mainly landline) broadband. In its 2015 Broadband Progress Report, the FCC concluded that “advanced telecommunications capability” requires access to both fixed and mobile broadband. Because home internet connections and smartphones have different capabilities and limitations, Americans should have access to both instead of just one or the other, the agency concluded at the time.

Now the FCC is proposing to analyze fixed and mobile broadband separately and then consider the totality of the evidence in its ultimate determination of whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner.

Updating Speed Benchmarks
In the 2015 Report, the FCC updated its broadband benchmark speeds to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads after finding that the 4 Mbps/1 Mbps standard set in 2010 was dated and inadequate for evaluating whether advanced broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a timely way. In the new NOI, the FCC asks if it should maintain the 25/3 speed benchmark, and to apply it to all forms of fixed broadband. In addition, it asks about setting a separate, mobile speed benchmark, and if it does so, what it should be. “We anticipate that any speed benchmark we set [for mobile] would be lower than the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps benchmark adopted for fixed broadband services, given differing capabilities of mobile broadband.” (So much for being technology-neutral policy.) The FCC has not previously set a mobile speed benchmark. It proposes a mobile speed benchmark of 10 Mbps/1 Mbps.

The FCC also wants to know, for the fixed broadband speed benchmark in particular, if there should be a relationship between the benchmark and what some fraction of subscribers are actually purchasing. Should a benchmark be reset to whatever level a substantial majority of residential customers subscribe to?

Evaluating Deployment
In comments in response to the 2016 NOI, broadband industry group USTelecom proposed that the FCC focus on the progress of actual broadband deployment from year-to-year rather than what percentage of the population has access to broadband meeting a particular speed benchmark. Even though there was no report on that NOI and the FCC is “starting afresh,” the commission is considering the proposal, asking how would such an inquiry proceed.

The FCC is also asking about how to interpret the terms “reasonable” and “timely”:

Insofar as they are separately-identified terms, should they be given independent meaning, and if so, what should be the scope of each concept? Alternatively, are the concepts of "reasonable and timely" deployment so interrelated that it makes most sense to evaluate them on a consolidated basis, rather than independently? We seek comment on these conceptual approaches and any alternatives.

At the FCC Meeting on August 3, the FCC proposed a rule to improve how it collects data about broadband coverage. The agency uses Form 477 to collect the data that is used to analyze broadband coverage. Internet and phone providers submit data on their coverage every six months, but many observers have called the dataset inaccurate and unreliable, reporting a number of instances when the FCC says broadband providers are available in areas they do not cover.

Chairman Pai and others have proposed to “improve the quality, accuracy, and usefulness of the data it collects on fixed and mobile voice and broadband service” as well as to examine how the agency can “reduce burdens on industry by eliminating unnecessary or onerous data filing requirements.”

An improved Form 477 will help the FCC get a more accurate snapshot of broadband deployment in the US.

Why Changing the Questions Matters

FCC Commissioner Clyburn released a statement with the NOI, which includes numerous critiques.

Mobile vs Fixed
Commissioner Clyburn notes that the FCC is seeking comment on “whether to deem an area as ‘served’ if mobile or fixed service is available. I am extremely skeptical of this line of inquiry. Consumers who are mobile only often find themselves in such a position, not by choice but because they cannot afford a fixed connection. Today, mobile and fixed broadband are complements, not substitutes.”

In the NOI, the FCC notes that the percentage of Americans subscribing to fixed broadband has reached an all-time high at approximately 73 percent. At the same time, 13 percent of Americans are relying solely on smartphones for home internet access. The question: Is using a smartphone to go online really “advanced telecommunications capability?”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review echos Commissioner Clyburn when it notes:

Mobile broadband access isn't the same as connectivity at home. The screens are smaller, data caps on mobile bandwidth are much tighter (and overages far more expensive), and speeds are slower—something the agency seems to acknowledge in the notice, when it suggests that "mobile broadband" be defined at 10Mbps of download speed and 1Mbps upstream. For the record, that's less than half the 25Mbps/3Mbps threshold necessary for a home connection to qualify as "broadband."

Low Speed Benchmarks
“We sell consumers short by proposing a speed benchmark that is way too low,” Commissioner Clyburn said. “The 25/3 Mbps standard we propose would not even allow for a single stream of 1080p video conferencing, much less 4K video conferencing. This does not even consider that multiple devices are likely utilizing a single fixed connection, or the multiple uses of a mobile device.”

Speed Benchmarks Based on Subscription
Commissioner Clyburn warns that establishing a speed benchmark based on the speed tier consumers are subscribing to creates “a precarious chicken-and-egg dilemma” because it “presupposes that consumers are getting the services they want at the prices they want, and are not constrained by network limitations and terms of service…” According to the law, she reminds the FCC majority, “We are supposed to consider what is ‘advanced’ in the context of what the service can do, not what consumers are buying.”

If, for example, 70 percent of Americans are buying broadband that does not allow people to use"‘high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications" does that mean that this level of broadband is advanced telecommunications capability? "Consumer purchasing patterns may be a convenient shorthand, but I believe such an approach would be problematic," Commissioner Clyburn said.

Measuring Deployment in Year-Over-Year Progress vs. Actually Meeting Needs
On the USTelecom ‘year-to-year’ proposal, Commissioner Clyburn notes that it is both practically difficult and contrary to the law mandating the FCC's inquiry because the FCC’s interpretation of what is ‘advanced telecommunications capability’ will and should change over time and advanced telecommunications capability is defined in terms of what the broadband service can deliver, not whether facilities are present. She warns, “I am fearful that we are starting down a path to look only at percentage coverage, and not at whether service is truly affordable and accessible for all Americans.”

What is at Stake?

Does The FCC Need to Act to Close the Digital Divide?
Congress mandated these annual broadband progress reports in Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Section 706 also requires the FCC, if it finds that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, to "take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market."

Jon Brodkin, writing for ars technica, notes, “[W]ith Republican Ajit Pai now in charge, the FCC seems poised to [declare] that mobile broadband with speeds of 10Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream is all one needs. In doing so, the FCC could conclude that broadband is already being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, and thus the commission could take fewer steps to promote deployment and competition.” [Note that in 2015, the Obama administration declared that 4G was available to 98 percent of Americans.]

Your Chance To Be Heard

The FCC is inviting comment from individual consumers, providers of broadband services, consumer advocates, analysts, companies, policy institutes, governmental entities, and all other interested parties to help it determine the most effective ways to complete its inquiry. If you think the FCC is missing something, it encourages commenters to bring to its attention new issues concerning the deployment and availability of broadband and recommend new ways to measure and evaluate deployment and availability.

Jon Brodkin reported that there have been over 300 new comments filed already since Wednesday, almost universally lambasting the FCC's suggestion that Americans might not need fast home Internet service and could make do with mobile broadband only. Mobile is hindered by data caps, limits on tethering, and reliability problems that make it fall short of a wired Internet connection, people told the FCC.

"Y'all are insane," Kevin Lenau of Texas told the FCC this week. "How can you possibly believe 10Mbps is broadband or that mobile is an alternative to broadband? Please wake up to 2017 and increase competition and decrease barriers of entry for rural area broadband."

You can file comments in the 17-199 proceeding on the FCC website. Initial comments are due September 7, and reply comments are due September 22.

As always, you can follow all broadband policy developments in benton logoHeadlines.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads
coffee iconMedia scholar on Trump TV: “This is Orwellian, and it’s happening right now, right here” (Vox)
coffee iconHow Trump's FCC aided Sinclair's expansion (Politico)
See Also: Diverse Groups Combine to Oppose Sinclair-Tribune (Multichannel News)
coffee iconBroadband Economic Benefits: Why Invest in Broadband Infrastructure and Adoption? (Daily Yonder)
coffee iconThe End of Typing: The Next Billion Mobile Users Will Rely on Video and Voice (Wall Street Journal)
coffee iconThe Culture Wars Have Come to Silicon Valley (New York Times)
coffee iconDisney Wants to Take On Netflix With Its Own Streaming Services (New York Times)
coffee iconThese frightening new survey results describe a Congress in crisis (Vox)

Events Calendar for August
Aug 15 -- Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee, NTIA
Aug 20 -- New Directions in Technology Policy: Removing Barriers to Growth and Innovation, Aspen Forum 2017
Aug 21 -- Community Broadband Workshop (Des Moines), NTIA

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