The Politics of Good Enough

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Digital Beat

The Politics of Good Enough

Dr. Christopher Ali

Federal Communications Commission policies geared towards improving rural broadband deployment have failed in meaning, money, and mapping. Together they constitute “the politics of good enough” that has never delivered the broadband rural America needs to survive and thrive.

The FCC is stuck in a mindset that anything is better than nothing when it comes to broadband in rural America.

In a recent article for the peer-reviewed International Journal of Communication (IJOC), I examine FCC rural broadband deployment policies since 2009. (This is part of my ongoing research that will be published cumulatively in my book Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity in September 2021 from MIT Press.) The IJOC article is based on a critical qualitative analysis of seven key rural broadband “policy moments” at the FCC from 2009-2020:

  1. 2009 Rural Broadband Strategy – published after Congress ordered the FCC and the US Department of Agriculture to establish a plan for rural broadband deployment;
  2. 2010 National Broadband Plan - the FCC’s plan to connect the United States with broadband and the benefits of universal connectivity;
  3. 2011 Connect America Fund (CAF) – the FCC’s plan to reorient the Universal Service Fund towards broadband deployment;
  4. 2015 allocation of CAF Phase II funds – the FCC’s CAF II decision on how much (and where) price cap carriers (think AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Cincinnati Bell, Consolidated Communications, Fairpoint, Frontier, Windstream) were offered to deploy broadband networks and how much they ended up accepting to deploy;
  5. 2018 CAF II Reverse Auction – the program that auctioned off the unallocated funds from the CAF II program;
  6. 2016 Alternative Connect America Model (ACAM) – the FCC’s funding program for rate-of-return providers (think small, independent telephone companies); and
  7. 2019 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) – the FCC’s newest broadband deployment program, amounting to $20.4billion over 10 years.

Based on an analysis of a decades-worth of regulatory initiatives aimed at correcting the broadband infrastructure gaps in rural America, I argue that not only have these policies and regulations failed in meaning, mapping and money but that they constitute what I call a “politics of good enough.”

First, the FCC has failed at meaning. By “meaning,” I refer both to the FCC’s definition of broadband (“25/3”) and its adherence to a policy of technological neutrality. As I have written before, on the surface, technological neutrality is not harmful, but when coupled with a slow speed definition such as the one we have today, technological neutrality encourages the funding of suboptimal connectivity, like DSL and satellite networks, because it presumes that these technologies are all equal and interchangeable.

The mapping failure is one that we are all familiar with, with the FCC’s Form 477 capturing self-reported industry data, census block data instead of more granular data, accepting advertised rather than actual speeds, hypothetical rather than actual service, and the lack of pricing data. In my article, Louisa County, Virginia, elucidates these points: the FCC considers the county 100% served with broadband, despite M-Lab data pointing to an average download speed of 3.9 Mbps and upload speed of 1.69 Mbps -- far below the FCC’s definition of broadband both today and in 2015 when the definition was raised from 10/1. Nevertheless, because Louisa is considered “served,” the county will be ineligible for the new round of FCC funding through the RDOF.

The money failure refers to the FCC’s historic favoritism of the largest telecommunication companies over the smaller and much more dynamic providers such as co-operatives. I focus particularly on the CAF II  program, both in its original iteration and its second iteration as a reverse auction. In the first regard, the CAF II program, gave a billion dollars a year to the ten largest telecommunication companies (“price cap carriers”) between 2015-2020 to subsidize broadband deployment in high-cost areas. It did so and asked relatively little in return, including an abysmal low-speed commitment of 10/1. There also seems to be little accountability, as both Frontier and CenturyLink reported that they did not meet their 2018 and 2019 buildout promises. The CAF II reverse auction fared better in terms of eligibility, allowing more than just price cap carriers to participate. This program has been championed as a model going forward for future programs. Still, one of the largest winners was satellite provider Viasat, which committed to only providing “baseline” service of 25/3. For those who have satellite internet, they know that connectivity rarely, if ever, gets that fast.

Together, these policy failures underscore what I identify as a "politics of good enough.” The FCC has been so fixated on rapid deployment that it has ignored issues of speed, latency, price, and deployment. It is stuck in a mindset that anything is better than nothing when it comes to broadband in rural America. This has given cover for the FCC to subsidize the aging technology of DSL networks, accept outdated speed thresholds (10/1 during CAF and 25/3 for the new RDOF), allocate billions of dollars in exchange for unambitious requirements, and permit harmful methodological errors. These decisions all favor “big telco” and disfavor smaller, more nimble ISPs, cooperatives, and municipalities to say nothing of rural communities and people that live there.

“Good enough” has become the enemy of great high-performance broadband. Its harmful legacy sees hundreds of communities stuck with inadequate broadband connections but are still considered “served” and therefore ineligible for the next round of FCC funding, which will amount to $20.4 billion over the next decade. Without this funding, ISPs have little market-based incentive to serve rural communities, like those in Louisa County mentioned above.

Turns out, the FCC’s embrace of “good enough” never truly was good enough. And we cannot allow the mistakes of the past to be replicated in the present and near-future. We need a rural broadband policy reset. Communities across the country are already embracing cooperatives, municipal systems, and private-public partnerships. As many have also argued, the FCC needs to raise the definition of broadband, ideally to 100/100, revise mapping and data collection as ordered by the Broadband DATA Act, and hold CAF and RDOF award winners accountable for their promises and commitments. 

See The Politics of Good Enough: Rural Broadband and Policy Failure in the United States in the International Journal of Communication (Volume 14).

Christopher Ali is an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia and Faculty Research Fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. He is the author of the forthcoming book: Farm Fresh Broadband: the Politics of Rural Connectivity (MIT Press).

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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