US still lagging on broadband but FCC promises change is coming

Latest vote inches faster speeds and more competition closer

US Broadband Map

The United States is still lagging the world in the rollout of broadband, but things are looking up as federal telecom regulator the FCC formally gave itself the power to act Thursday.

As signposted at the beginning of the year, the FCC's annual broadband report has concluded that fast internet access is not being deployed to all Americans "in a reasonable and timely fashion." That language gives the regulator the legal authority to act in the face of an inevitable chorus of complaints from the telecom companies.

The report won't be published until Friday, or possibly Monday, due to the FCC's peculiar procedures, but its broad details are well known:

  • 34 million Americans don't have access to broadband (defined as 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up)
  • 39 per cent of the rural population does not have access to fixed broadband.
  • 41 percent of schools have not met the FCC's goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff.
  • The US is still far behind other countries, ranking 16th out of 34 developed nations.

In order to make those findings official, the FCC's five commissioners had to formally vote on its acceptance at an open meeting Thursday, which they did in a typical pantomime performance.

As ever, it was a 3-2 partisan vote with the two Republican commissioners throwing the usual mix of florid insults in lengthy speeches at the other three before it was passed in a quick vote.

Echoing the knee-jerk reaction from the telecom industry, Commissioner O'Reilly called the report and its "politically driven findings" a "sham." There was plenty of progress being made on broadband, he complained, and the FCC knew it. That's why "to divert attention ... the report concludes a lengthy discussion on mobile broadband."

The industry pushed out a release seconds after the vote, carved in recycled brimstone: "The annual broadband report seems to have become a cynical, fact-starved exercise with a conclusion that is contrived to justify a continuing expansion of regulatory authority ... It is ludicrous to say that broadband deployment in the United States is unreasonable..." And so on.

Buck bang

Commissioner Pai offered more of the same, complaining that failure lies not in the oligopolistic telecom companies that dominate the United States – and which offer less, at lower speeds and for more money than almost any comparable developed country – but in the FCC itself and its various tax-payer-funded exercises.

"American taxpayers aren't getting the bang they deserve for their hard-earned bucks," railed Pai. "The FCC is living up to Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum that 'Money often costs too much.'"

The other commissioners, knowing that they have the vote sewn up regardless of whatever insults were thrown their way, all offered the same, few passive-aggressive responses before waving it through.

Perhaps unusually, Commissioner Pai's response did highlight an important point however: what exactly is the FCC going to do?

"After far too many years and far too many broken promises, we have learned that the past is prologue," he insulted, before visioning: "What our country needs is a real broadband deployment agenda – a proactive, concrete, bipartisan, dedicated effort to deliver digital opportunity to every American who wants it." USA! USA!

So what is it?

Skip over the net neutrality insults and we hit "embracing the IP Transition and letting carriers sunset the increasingly obsolete public switched telephone network in favor of next-generation technologies like fiber."

It is true that the FCC does require telcos to get permission from it before they can start pulling out old system. Is that over-regulation? Quite probably, yes. Just because the FCC deals with cutting-edge technology, don't mistake it for a cutting-edge regulator: it is still a slow and stubborn bureaucracy wedded to the old ways.

Pai also suggests "modernizing our rate-of-return policies so that rural residents can have the same choice for stand-alone broadband typically found in cities." There is a lot of red tape around rollouts in the US. It's often there for a good reason – to prevent market abuse – but it is still a drag. The FCC is far better at identifying others' failings than its own.

Pai notes that it takes twice as long to deploy wireless infrastructure on federal land – one of the factors contributing to the rural-urban divide on broadband provision. He points out that the "spectrum pipeline" needs to be pulled out of the federal government's hands and put into the commercial market, and "rejuvenating the 5 GHz proceeding so that wireless broadband providers and consumers nationwide can put another 195 MHz spectrum to unlicensed use."

This is all true. Although of course, both the federal government and the for-profit companies are salivating over the billions that can easily flow from this freed-up resource.

Nuts, bolts

What is the FCC going to actually do? We don't know. The broadband report is the first step. The regulator will then go off and come up with ways that it believes it can improve the situation. And then, when it comes back with a plan, the FCC will pass it with three commissioners lauding its brilliance, two complaining in the most bitter terms about its impact and assumptions, and the bureaucracy failing to correct its own flaws.

The unfortunate truth for actual internet users is that what those plans are and how many benefits they derive from them will depend on what happens in the upcoming US presidential elections.

The president appoints the FCC chair and so decides down which path the regulator goes (subject to Senate approval of course). If it is a Republican president, the telcos will likely find themselves back in favor and we will find that the US maintains its unhealthy position in the broadband league tables. If it is a Democratic president, the FCC will drive ahead and expand internet access across the nation, likely using public funds to expand the FCC's programs – whose efficiency will be insufficiently challenged.

No one said it would be pretty, but that's how it works. ®

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