FCC’s National Broadband Plan

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National Broadband Plan

by Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021995

Publication Date: 1804

Report Type: TUTORIAL


National Broadband Plan aims to ensure that all
Americans have available at least some form of broadband Internet, regardless of
their location. Unfortunately, many
Americans still do not have this level of connectivity available to them, whether due to
geographic location, challenging natural conditions, or a simple lack of
interest in their area among broadband providers. While the availability of high-speed connections has increased
significantly over the past few years, the US Federal Communications
Commission rightly views its work as incomplete. This report will detail the
agency’s ongoing efforts to make sure all Americans have at least basic access
to high-speed Internet in their homes.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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The US Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) developed the National Broadband Plan in response to 2009’s
American Recovery and Reinvestment act. Its ongoing goal is to increase and
monitor the availability of broadband Internet for all American citizens.

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Telecommunications in the US Market

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plan encourages the government to support policies that improve
competition, make public resources (like the wireless spectrum)
available as appropriate, and define certain standards for broadband.
The FCC also studies the availability of broadband and keeps track of
the performance of the services now offered to consumers. The ultimate goal
of all of this oversight is to create a broadband market in the US that provides
at least one choice, but ideally offers multiple choices, in broadband services
to customers, regardless of their geographic location. This last distinction is
of the utmost importance due to the fact that geographic obstacles are the most
common reason that broadband providers will refrain from expanding their
networks into a given area. Whether its due to mountainous terrain, a sparse
population, or some other natural feature that would increase build-out costs,
broadband providers tend not to expand their networks into regions where the
cost and difficulty outweigh the possible revenue that a presence in that region
could generate. This is, of course, completely understandable as a business’
primary goal must always be to turn a profit. However, it also leaves the millions
of American citizens living in areas like these out in the cold when it comes to
broadband access.

While the number of Americans with broadband at home has increased
significantly over the past several years, the US still lags many other nations
in average speeds thanks to extant areas of underserved or non-existent
broadband access. The
digital divide is not just a concept relating to developed versus
developing economies; instead, it is a reality in America. These spotty holes in
America’s broadband network can hinder online job
applications and create a vicious cycle that perpetuates lower incomes. This, in
turn inhibits Internet
adoption and broadband proliferation. Because of the ultimate impact that having
a well-connected populace can have on a country’s success or failure, the National Broadband Plan
is tasked with
not only ensuring universal broadband for Americans, but with guaranteeing
America’s continued global competitiveness. 


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The term
“broadband,” according to the US federal government’s broadband.gov,
“commonly refers to high-speed Internet access that is always on and
faster than the traditional dial-up access.”1
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created its National
Broadband Plan in 20102 to ensure that
the entire broadband ecosystem (networks,
devices, content, applications) is usable, useful, and used. The plan
states that the government can influence this ecosystem in four ways:

  • Establish Competition Policies –
    This will foster competition by developing disclosure requirements for
    service providers, freeing up and allocating spectrum for unlicensed
    use, and enabling innovation, expediting action on data roaming, and so
  • Ensure Efficient Allocation and the Use of Government-Owned and Government-Influenced Assets –
    This includes making 500 megahertz of spectrum newly available within
    ten years, establishing low and more uniform rental rates for access to
    poles, improving rights-of-way management, facilitating new
    infrastructure construction, and providing ultra-high-speed broadband
    connectivity to select US Department of Defense installations.
  • Create Incentives for Universal Availability and Adoption of Broadband – The
    Connect America Fund (CAF) was launched with up to $300
    in savings from these and prior reforms to be used
    to extend high-speed Internet to 400,000 previously unserved homes,
    businesses, and anchor institutions (e.g., hospitals,
    schools) in rural
    America. The fund is now entering its second phase of deployments.
  • Update Policies, Set Standards, and Align Incentives to Maximize Use for National Priorities – This
    includes maximizing the benefits of broadband in sectors that
    government influences, such as education, healthcare, energy and the
    environment, and government operations, including public safety and
    homeland security.3

The National Broadband Plan also defined six
long-term goals, which, in summary, are as follows:

  1. To ensure that 100 million U.S.
    households have access to Internet access with 100 Mbps download speeds and 50
    Mbps upload speeds by the year 2020.
  2. To position the US to
    be the world’s leader in wireless communication development.
  3. To
    90-percent of the US using broadband connections by 2020.
  4. To
    provide 1 Gbps access to all communities for the purpose of then
    providing it to
    organizations like schools and hospitals.
  5. To give first responders
    access to
    a national wireless broadband network designed for public safety.
  6. And
    To use
    broadband services to monitor and control energy use.4

In the years since the plan’s release, the FCC has continued to work to
monitor and encourage the use of broadband.

2015, the FCC updated its standards for what constitutes broadband.
Previously, a service was considered to be broadband
if it offered at least 4 Mbps upload speeds and 1 Mbps download speeds.
But the standards defined in 2015 change this significantly to 25 Mbps
for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. This change, according to the
FCC, was based on improvements in technology and customer
expectations. “Using this updated service benchmark,” says the
2015 Broadband Progress Report, “55 million Americans – 17 percent of the population – lack access to advanced broadband. Moreover, a significant digital
divide remains between urban and rural America: Over half of all rural
Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.”5
To put the new definition of broadband in some context, it is important
to consider that a
larger percentage of people in the US have access to broadband
according to the old standards. As far back as 2012, all but 19 million
people had access to lower-speed broadband.6

Current View

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addition to measuring the adoption of broadband (as reported in the
annual Broadband Progress Report), the FCC has also begun to keep track
of speeds and other performance metrics. This
project, Measuring
Broadband in America, published its first results in
2011. These
annual reports measure the performance of broadband cable,
DSL, fiber, and satellite services offered to consumers. 

Despite the agency’s previous policy of releasing an annual update on the
performance metrics of nationwide fixed broadband proliferations, the most
recent study is still the one published in December 2016. This showed
significant growth in advertised broadband speeds available to consumers, with median speeds reaching 39 Mbps in 2016, gaining 7 Mbps over the 32 Mbps median
recorded for the prior year.7 The report also notes that while nearly all major
broadband providers are reaching 100 percent of their advertised speeds or better, the
national averages continue to be dragged down by DSL and satellite offerings,
which often miss their claimed speeds. However, since that time, the FCC’s
reports on this matter have been almost non-existent. While the agency itself
has claimed that it plans to continue the work of broadband proliferation set
down in the original National Broadband Plan documents, many believe its work
has slowed or lost its original level of standards, for reasons that will be
covered later in this report.

In the meantime, the agency is still actively pursuing its duty to police
Internet service providers’ claims about the broadband speeds being advertised
versus those actually being delivered to consumers. To do this, the FCC uses what it
calls the "80/80 speed consistency" rule. Under this guideline, providers are
checked to see if they offer their advertised speeds to at least 80 percent of their
providers at least 80 percent of the time over peak usage periods. Using this as a
measuring stick, the 2016 report found that Verizon FiOS, Optimum, Charter, and
Time-Warner all exceeded 90 percent, while some of the poorest performers, those that
only reached this benchmark less than 50 percent of the time, included AT&T DSL, Fronter Fiber, and Viasat Satellite.8

Although it is important to track the performance of broadband providers
where they do offer service, the main thrust of the National Broadband Plan is
to bring Broadband to areas where it is in limited supply or completely
unavailable. To this end, the FCC determined that, as of its most recent
measurement, 10 percent of all US citizens, or about 28 million people, lacked access
to the 25/3 Mbps threshold. This figure jumped to 39 percent when limited to rural
areas, but fell to just 4 percent when limited to urban centers.9
This once again illustrated the impact geographic and population differences
make in the prevalence of broadband in a specific region.

In addition to these findings, noteworthy discoveries in the report included
the fact that 41 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked broadband
access (68 percent when that determination is limited to rural areas within those
lands); 68 percent of citizens of US territories lacked access (98 percent of
those in rural areas of the territories); and the fact that, despite the
disparity of availability, rural Americans are actually just as hungry for
broadband access as their city-dwelling counterparts, with broadband adoption
rates staying level regardless of which type of area was examined.10


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the availability of broadband services is a key role of the FCC, and it
will continue to introduce new activities and policies to further the
goals defined in its National Broadband
Plan. Over time, the
benchmarks that the FCC uses to achieve this goal will change, as
they have in the past and as the industry’s service levels and technology
continue to improve.

However, the FCC currently finds itself in a state of flux the likes of
which have not been seen in years. Chairman Ajit Pai has shown beyond a
shadow of a doubt that he favors a smaller agency that exerts much less regulatory pressure
on ISPs, broadband providers, and telecom companies. In the
Chairman’s mind, this light-touch regulation will help proliferate the type of
broadband spending that he claims the previous administration’s growing FCC
authority was stifling. In fact, rather than issuing the annual broadband report, the
last of which was published by Pai’s predecessor Tom Wheeler in 2016, the new
Chair has instead published only a single document covering broadband
proliferation. Titled the "2018 Broadband Deployment Report," the
main thrust of this document is not to provide new information, but to draw a comparison in broadband proliferation before the initiation
of the FCC’s Title II order (a major portion of the Obama era legislation which
enshrined net neutrality as the law of the land) and after its passage.11
The publication does not actually cite any information beyond what was already
available in the 2016 measurement report, but does claim that the Title II
changes slowed the deployment of new broadband services between 2014 and 2016.
Whether or not this was actually the case remains up for debate, as the
statistics cited within the report to prove the Chairman’s point of view have been questioned by many.

Ajit Pai has also drawn criticism on his handling of
one of the primary tools of the National Broadband Plan:
The Connect America Fund. This initiative was created to encourage broadband
providers to bring their networks to otherwise unfeasible areas by
offering monetary incentives. But, since Pai has taken over at the FCC, its
operations have become increasingly questioned due to multiple, seemingly
negative moves made by the agency. Among these are attempts to reclassify
"broadband" to allow carriers to deploy wireless services, rather than
terrestrial broadband; the decision to lower speed thresholds to 10Mbps
download and 1Mbps for the second phase of the Connect America Fund; and the
arrest of Elizabeth Pierce, an adviser chosen by Pai to head up his "Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee,"
a group he created to "identify regulatory
barriers to infrastructure investment" and "make recommendations to the
Commission on reducing and/or removing them."12, 13 Making this
final blow even worse is the fact that the arrest was due to an alleged
investment fraud scheme which attempted to cheat investors out of
approximately $250 million for a largely
fictitious fiber optic project in Alaska that never had any real chance of
being completed. This turn of events is not the first time the
Chairman’s actions into question.

In fact, there is a growing list of evidence that Ajit Pai may not be having
a positive impact on broadband deployment in the US. Among these
indicators are previous gaffes that included the
withdrawal of a report detailing the improvements made by his predecessor’s
E-Rate program for subsidizing broadband connections in schools; his elimination
of pending approvals for nine companies that could have offered government
subsidized broadband under the LifeLine program; and his now-infamous stance against the
Title II changes made by the previous administration that classified broadband
as a utility to be regulated by the FCC, giving the agency the legal power to
more deeply control its proliferation.14 For his part, Pai has
characterized these moves as the elimination of waste and exploitative
government spending, as well as the elimination of what he claims was an
overstepping of the FCC’s authority. In a previous version of this
report, it was suggested that the real impact of Pai’s changes would become
clear in the 2018 edition of the Broadband Progress report. However, it appears
the Chairman has made this impossible by eliminating the report and replacing it
with the aforementioned "2018 Broadband Deployment Report," which only includes
statistics from 2016 and earlier.


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The continued proliferation of broadband services in the US
is in greater question now than it has been since the 2009 creation of the
National Broadband Plan. For the first time since the plan’s creation, an
administration is suggesting actions like lowering standards, revising broadband
terminology, and making policy changes that seem designed to benefit broadband
providers over consumers. This is happening during a time when the motivations
of the leadership at the FCC and elsewhere in the federal government are being
called into question over allegations that they are working for the interest of
corporations that formerly employed them rather than for the American people.15
In this environment, broadband proliferation is unlikely to flourish. Yes, the
current FCC leadership claims that a new era of broadband investment will be
driven by the loosening of regulations on nearly all aspects of telecom law,
particularly its repeal of net neutrality. However, nearly all voices speaking
on the matter have agreed that such regulatory relaxation will do nothing but
increase revenues for broadband providers while providing little or no actual
motivation for them to bring broadband to underserved or unserved areas.

On top of this, the Trump administration has also shown itself to be
extremely friendly towards the mega-mergers that the Obama-era regulatory
agencies would have halted in their tracks. This can be seen in the telecom
world simply by looking at the re-ignition of talks between Sprint and
T-Mobile on a possible merger. Previously, it was believed this transaction,
and those on a similar scale, would reduce competition to the point that it
would harm consumers. Now, the government is taking a completely different
stance on such matters, pointing to job creation and supposed financial
benefits instead. This silence on how broadband proliferation is being
affected by current administrative decisions becomes all the more deafening
when considering the cessation of the publication of any sort of annual
statistics on the performance of the National Broadband Plan. After all, if
the current administration’s actions were indeed having a positive impact on
broadband deployment, why would it not want to flaunt its own success?

With all of this said, it is unlikely that the federal government would
do anything as drastic as canceling the US National Broadband Plan. However,
it remains unclear exactly how much effort it is actually willing to put into
completing its goals. The 2020 deadline set for many of those goals is fast
approaching, and the American public is less well-informed now than it has
been in years as to exactly how close the US broadband market is to reaching
them. We are, quite simply, being left in the dark at the moment, making it
nearly impossible to predict what the future may hold for broadband
proliferation in the US.


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About the Author

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Michael Gariffo is an editor for Faulkner Information Services. He
tracks and writes about enterprise software and the IT services sector, as well
as telecommunications and data networking.

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