Driving Fiber Deeper: The National Broadband Plan at Four

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation hosted a birthday party of sorts March 19 for the National Broadband Plan which turned four years old this week. Blair Levin served as the Executive Director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative at the Federal Communications Commission and is generally regarded as the architect of the Plan which was mandated by the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Levin was generous enough to allow the Benton Foundation to reprint the speech he delivered at the ITIF event.

Levin identified four key strategies from the U.S. broadband plan – and in every national broadband plan around the world:

  1. Driving fiber deeper;
  2. Using spectrum more efficiently;
  3. Getting everyone online; and
  4. Using the platform to improve delivery of public goods.

Levin says the right question for the fourth anniversary of the report is ‘Are we improving in executing on those 4 strategies?’ Today, we join in that fun.

The National Broadband Plan, you may recall, recommended that the country set the following six goals for 2020 to serve as a compass:

  • Goal #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 #2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.
  • Goal #3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
  • Goal #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 #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 #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.

Looking at just Goal #1 today, National Broadband Map data shows that just less than 57% of U.S. households (so roughly 78.5 million) have access to wireline broadband offering download speeds of 100Mbps or more and just more than 18% (approximately 25.4 million) have access to upload speeds of 50Mbps or more. If you’re thinking wireless Internet access could help, just 3% of U.S. households can access wireless broadband offering download speeds of 100Mbps or more and 4.2% have access to wireless upload speeds of 50Mbps or more.

Far from 100Mbps, according to broadband speed tests, the median speeds in homes, institutions and businesses are:

Home – 6.7Mbps
Schools, Libraries, Community Centers – 10.0Mbps
Medium/Large Business – 8.9Mbps
Small Business – 4.4Mbps

The median wireless connection delivers just 2.1 Mbps.

The top technologies for delivering broadband are wireless (available to 99% of households according to the National Broadband map), DSL (88.8%), cable (88%), and fiber (just 25.2%). But just 56.64% of U.S. households have access to any technology that can deliver broadband download speeds of 100Mbps or more: high speed cable reaches 52.3% of U.S. households, 100Mbps fiber reaches just 12.54% of households, and 100Mbps wireless is available to less than 3% of U.S. households.

For communities that don’t yet have access to high speed broadband, prospects that they will soon have fiber as an option are not good. On March 11, Newsweek published Telecom Giants Drag Their Feet on Broadband for the Whole Country. And this is not just a rural vs city issue. Verizon told the state utilities board that "New Jersey now enjoys the best broadband telecommunications" in the country. But the cities and towns in the state that do not yet have Verizon’s fiber option FiOS service will not be getting it. “Verizon has made a tentative deal with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration to stop expanding its FiOS Internet service in that state,” writes Newsweek’s David Cay Johnston. “The terms would deny access forever to many small businesses and residences.” On March 19, Stefanie A. Brand, head of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, wrote a letter to the state Board of Public Utilities saying, "If this proposal is accepted, Verizon would be evading and avoiding its responsibility to provide broadband to potentially thousands of New Jersey ratepayers." The board, she said, "should not accept anything less than was bargained for and paid for by New Jersey ratepayers."

Under an agreement reached 21 years ago, called Opportunity New Jersey, Verizon - which was New Jersey Bell at the time - agreed to provide broadband to the all its New Jersey customers by 2010, financed in part by a $1 monthly surcharge on customers' phone bills. But officials in two Cumberland County towns complained about a lack of access to broadband, and the BPU concluded in 2012 that "full deployment of broadband has not been achieved." The proposed new agreement between Verizon and the BPU defines broadband as "any technology medium" that is as fast as Verizon's DSL, or digital subscriber line service, which is far slower than its high-speed, fiber optic FiOS service and most other broadband connections. This definition includes 4G-based wireless, which brings Internet access to cell phones.

David Cay Johnston goes on to write that “instead of laying fiber cable, cable and telephone companies have invested in a massive and very successful lobbying push. They are persuading state legislatures and regulatory boards to quietly adopt new rules -- rules written by the [companies] -- to eliminate their legal obligations to provide broadband service nationwide and replace landlines with wireless.” The lobbyist-proposed legislation and regulation would end the requirements to serve all customers, to resolve customer complaints fairly, to make repairs promptly and to install service soon after it is ordered. While the bills and regulatory rules proposed differ in each state, all have common themes: less or no competition, no more investment in fiber-optic networks, no authority for regulators to help distressed small businesses and consumers. David Cay Johnston concludes that these plans will leave vast areas of the country with poor service, slow telecommunications and higher bills.

On March 11, Michigan legislators approved a bill that will make it easier for a company to stop traditional landline or "plain old telephone service" in an area starting in 2017. Supporters, namely AT&T, say the change is needed to allow them to invest in more modern means of communication as droves of customers abandon their landline plans for mobile phones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoiP) service. AARP Michigan and law enforcement organizations are concerned residents will be left without reliable access to phone, medical alert and alarm services. They don’t like how the proposal gives more authority to federal regulators and places the burden on consumers to request a state investigation of whether there would still be reliable voice and 911 services in an area if a provider pulled out. The legislation lays out a new process that requires the company to file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission and notify those who could be impacted. Once that happens, a consumer could ask the Michigan Public Service Commission to investigate the availability of alternative reliable voice and 911 services. (The MPSC wouldn’t have the authority to initiate its own investigation without a consumer request.) If there are no providers already available or willing to enter the market, the MPSC could require the existing phone company to maintain service. It wouldn't necessarily have to be traditional landline service, but the MPSC would have to determine that it's comparable and offers reliable access to 911 services.

In New York City, Verizon customers in East Harlem who have been without telephone service since early February say the company is trying to force them to dump their traditional landlines for new fiber-optic lines and fancy features. “They said, ‘You must take FiOS in order to get your phone back,’” said Sylvia Velazquez, whose landline has been down for 42 days. “That’s unfair. We shouldn’t be pressured into taking it.” At least 150 Verizon customers have been complaining about dead phone lines for more than a month. Verizon says it has been working to restore their traditional landlines, but acknowledges it would like to move them to fiber optic service. Verizon customers in Potomac (MD), Long Beach (CA), and Narberth (PA) have reportedly lodged similar complaints.

Earlier this week, The Utility Reform Network (TURN) filed a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission saying that Verizon is forcing customers in southern California to move from traditional telephone service to voice over IP or wireless services. Verizon is ignoring requests for repair of its existing copper-based network and forcing customers to VoIP service over Verizon's FiOS broadband service, TURN said. VoIP service doesn't have the same state or federal regulatory protections that traditional telephone service has, TURN noted. "Verizon is migrating these customers to a largely deregulated fiber-based telephone service that is inferior to basic phone service in certain key respects," Costa wrote. VoIP service doesn't work during power outages, and may not work with some medical alert services, TURN said. TURN asked the California commission to order Verizon to repair its copper networks and restore traditional telephone service to customers who want it.

While ITIF hosted the discussion on the National Broadband Plan on March 19, the Federal Communications Commission held a workshop on the importance of broadband in rural America. The FCC is trying develop ideas about how to structure experiments that will inform its policy decisions regarding the deployment of next generation networks in rural, high-cost areas – especially as telephone companies seek to shut down traditional telephone networks and services to be replaced with some mix of wireline and wireless alternatives.

The workshop included an examination of the broadband needs of rural populations and the unique challenges of both broadband deployment and adoption in rural areas. It also examined different business models that have been used to deploy broadband in rural areas, including a discussion of the factors that drive investment decisions and technology choices of different types of providers in rural communities. While one FCC official tried to elicit a formula or rule-of-thumb for the conditions under which various technologies (landline broadband, satellite, terrestrial wireless, etc.) would be the optimal solution, responses from the participants quickly showed there was no cut-and-dried answer.

On January 30, the FCC invited proposals to tell whether there is interest in constructing high bandwidth networks in high cost areas, and to tell the Commission how it could be done. The response has been astounding. To date, the FCC has received nearly 1,000 expressions of interest from all parts of the country and more are being filed every day. Proposals from rural telephone companies, from rural electric co-ops, from cable and wireless service providers, from schools and libraries, from research and education networks, from communities. The proposals are varied, geographically and technologically diverse, yet all have a common theme, wrote Jonathan Chambers, the chief of the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis: “They are expressions of a desire to deliver better, more robust Internet access service, faster speeds to communities in rural areas. They are expressions by people who understand that high bandwidth services are becoming increasingly important to the future of economic development, education, health care, government services, entertainment, information, communication and creativity. And many, such as those from telephone and electric co-ops and anchor institutions, are expressions from organizations rooted in local communities.”

In assessing the National Broadband Plan's execution to "drive fiber deeper," Blair Levin noted that Google Fiber has sparked activities in nearly 40 communities and inspired efforts by AT&T, CenturyLink, CSpire, and Gig.U.

But most of these efforts can be characterized as neighborhood projects: bringing high-speed broadband to the sections of cities that display the greatest demand -- and the resources to pay for it. We're still a long way from realizing the top goal of the National Broadband Plan -- and a long, long way from bringing affordable, high-capacity broadband to everyone in the U.S.

By Kevin Taglang.