The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its latest Notice of Inquiry last week to begin the next annual assessment of broadband deployment in the U.S., highlighting that according to the 2018 report, “advanced telecommunications capability was being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”
According to the notice, the FCC plans to maintain the 2018 standard for nationwide broadband deployment at a speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps.
25 Mbps/3 Mbps, which refers to download/upload speed in Megabits per second, allows four users or devices to operate without interruption at the same time.
But not everyone thinks the FCC is orchestrating the deployment of broadband in a “reasonable and timely fashion,” especially not to rural Americans.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel issued a dissenting statement immediately following the release of the notice, arguing that nationwide broadband deployment is neither reasonable nor timely.
“That report found — despite clear evidence of 24 million Americans without high-speed service — that broadband deployment nationwide is both reasonable and timely,” she wrote. “It ignored too many people in too many places struggling to access high-speed service and dealing with connectivity that falls short of what is necessary for full participation in the digital age.”
According to a Pew Research Center study released in May 2017, the typical American household has at least five devices, and many households have more, which suggests a minimum standard of 25 Mbps/3Mbps may be too low.
“I believe this goal is insufficiently audacious,” Rosenworcel wrote. “It is time to be bold and move the national broadband standard from 25 Megabits to 100 Megabits per second. When you factor in price, at this speed the United States is not even close to leading the world.”
According to Community Networks, a project of the Institute for Self-Reliance, many countries are far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to broadband deployment and download/upload speeds.
Canada, for example, is shooting higher than the U.S. by pursuing a 50 Mbps/10 Mbps standard.
Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications for Pennsylvania State University, agrees that broadband deployment is slowly improving, but thinks it is neither “reasonable” nor “timely.”
“If I drove NASCAR and every time someone checked in with me I said I’ve driven more laps around the track, that would be true,” he told InsideSources in an interview. “They say we’re making improvements, and that is true, but we’re making improvements slower than other countries and in some places [of our country] faster than others. If you look at the gap between the current deployment speeds and costs versus other highly industrialized nations, our peers on a global scale, you’ll see the gulf is growing. Other nations are providing better, faster service for cheaper prices in more areas. So what we see over time is America falling further and further behind.”
The major sticking point is rural communities: because they’re farther from urban areas and are more sparsely populated than urban areas, telecom companies have a much lesser incentive to invest in them. Thus, rural communities are stuck with outdated broadband infrastructure — like copper wiring — that can’t handle the kinds of download/upload speeds necessary to keep up with demand.
Rural Americans rely on internet access for work as well as entertainment, and just as much as urban Americans. For there to still be so many rural Americans without high-speed internet access is considered by many to be a failure of the FCC to deploy efficient broadband infrastructure initiatives.
Meinrath said its a nonpartisan issue as well: both Democrats and Republicans have been extremely bad about deploying broadband to rural Americans.
“It’s the critical resource for a 21st century economy,” he said. “What do we think the world looks like for communities that will never be competitive until they have equitable speeds with urban environments or other countries? Rural Democrats and Republicans are being screwed equitably by both Democrats and Republicans. That’s a matter of leadership, of vision, of addressing the on-the-ground realities that we simply just haven’t done.”
Part of the problem according to Meinrath is the FCC doesn’t even realize the scope of the problem, because the FCC doesn’t collect accurate data on the state of broadband and broadband deployment, which in turn leads the FCC to release reports saying that broadband deployment is “reasonable and timely.”
“The FCC collected the advertised speed and availability [of broadband] without verifying the actual speeds and availability,” Meinrath said.
According to a study from Vantage Point Solutions, “Actual throughput capacity for wireless users is often only 15 percent of the peak data connection rate – although the peak rate is the speed that providers promote.”
Thus, Meinrath argues, using advertised download/upload speeds as the gauge for measuring whether rural — or urban — Americans have access to adequate broadband service is “laziness.”
To combat misinformation and provide the FCC with accurate data, Meinrath is working on his own national broadband map through his Measurement Lab project that measures actual speeds across America.
“We’re about halfway through our data collection and we’re already seeing the largest gaps in the poorest and most rural communities,” he said. “The cost per megabit is far higher in rural communities than in cities.”
In 2009, Meinrath helped draft the 21st Century Broadband Superhighway Act, but said it was “put on hold due to American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 supposedly incorporating funding for the same.”
In 2011, he wrote a letter to the FCC pointing out their faulty data collection methods, but told InsideSources in an email that, “The sad reality is that excruciatingly little has changed.”
Meinrath and Rosenworcel believe the U.S. will not be able to remain competitive with other nations if it continues at the current pace of broadband deployment at the current 25 Mbps/3 Mbps standard. That puts the U.S. at an economic disadvantage on the global stage, they say, but it also hurts Americans — especially rural Americans.
Even though politicians talk about broadband infrastructure being a necessary investment — just a month ago Democrats and Republicans argued over a new broadband bill — Meinrath thinks they haven’t really decided broadband is a necessary investment, which is why broadband deployment isn’t fast enough.
“We decided we needed a national road network, and so we invested in that (same with water, electricity),” Meinrath said. “And broadband is a crucial infrastructure. What’s important is we need to drive investment in this space and we’ve shied away from doing that.”
The FCC testified before the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday morning, and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) asked about the national broadband map and whether the FCC is doing anything to fix it.
“It’s my understanding that the FCC has put in place a map that is known to be flawed,” he said. “My question is, what efforts beyond the challenge process is the FCC able, willing or now doing to see that the map is righted?”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai then blamed the Obama-led FCC for the “flawed” map, and didn’t specify when the FCC expects to have an accurate broadband map.
“We inherited a mess when it comes to the map,” he said.
Given that the annual broadband deployment report continues to use the flawed broadband map, it is unclear what the actual state of broadband deployment is across America.