FCC Still Bemoans Rural Broadband Gap

Latest broadband deployment report shows more than half of rural Americans can't get the 25 Megs of broadband the feds say they need, even as rural telcos says FCC support is confusing and inconsistent.

January 29, 2016

3 Min Read
FCC Still Bemoans Rural Broadband Gap

The broadband access gap in the US isn't closing very fast, and the rural digital divide still looms quite large, according to the 2015 Broadband Progress Report, adopted by the FCC today. That last statistic shouldn't come as a huge surprise to anyone, least of all the federal regulators themselves. (See FCC: Rural Broadband Progress Slowing.)

The report says 17% of Americans and 53% of rural Americans still can't get broadband, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines as 25 Megabits per second downstream and 4 Mbits/s upstream. The overall figure represents just a 3% improvement over the 2014 report, a pace the regulators say is inadequate. Worst of all is broadband coverage for Americans living on tribal lands.

Given the way in which so much of our lives require online access, it's not unreasonable to think that everyone should have it -- the issue is always what broadband should be and who should pay for it. The FCC report says there needs to be additional action by both the public and private sectors.

The report immediately came under fire from a major Washington policy think tank, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which is funded by Cisco, Google and the Communications Workers of America among others but known for its non-partisan stands. Writing in The Innovation Files blog, Doug Brake, a telecommunications policy analyst with ITIF, calls the FCC's conclusions "erroneous" and based on "a highly strained reading of the evidence."

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He particularly chides the agency for sticking to the 25/4 Mbits/s standard, which he calls arbitrary, and for not taking mobile broadband into account. Fixed line broadband access may have peaked in 2013 and could be supplanted by wireless access by many users for many reasons. Blake argues that a more realistic reading shows the US is making reasonable progress on broadband nationally and that the government should focus its help on areas where it's uneconomic for the private sector to deliver.

The FCC says it's now opening a notice of inquiry to ask how it can better support rural broadband. I'm no expert in that field but I spent a substantial period of time last summer attending regional meeting with the NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association , and listening to what its members were saying about the complicated and often contradictory formulas the FCC uses for determining funding for rural broadband buildouts. (See FCC Plan Could Stymie Rural Broadband.)

It shouldn't be that hard for the FCC to hear what these folks are saying with or without a formal NoI process. Helping them survive may not be popular policy -- there are plenty of folks who think small rural companies are an inefficient way to deliver broadband -- but at least these companies are trying, which is more than many large incumbents are doing in the rural areas they still hold.

But if the commissioners aren't going to do something more sensible than their current approach to delivering better rural broadband, then all these new annual reports and the accompanying handwringing are pretty pointless.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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