Raise the Bar on Broadband

The FCC should provide Congress and the American public with more reliable information on telecommunications services, writes Mark Lloyd.

The Senate Commerce Committee is taking up legislation this week to ensure that the American public gets the facts on broadband. When Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced the Broadband Data Improvement Act (S. 1492), he said, “The first step in an improved broadband policy is ensuring that we have better data on which to build our efforts. It is imperative that we get our broadband house in order and our communications policy right. But we cannot manage what we do not measure.”

Sen. Inouye is right on target. He joins a number of members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in calling for the truth about the deployment of advanced telecommunications services in the United States. The question is, how many times does Congress have to ask for this basic information?

I and others have complained over the past 10 years that the Federal Communications Commission has failed in its duty to provide Congress and the American public with reliable information on the deployment of advanced telecommunications services.

As Congress understood more than 10 years ago, advanced telecommunications services are essential to address modern educational and health care needs—not because they will allow the faster download of movies or computer games. Where we stand on broadband is a measure of our ability to compete in a global economy. This simple duty to provide data was clearly written in Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Yet instead of doing what Congress asked, the FCC bowed before the telecommunications industry and asked for information on speeds that are laughably low—200 kilobits per second downstream (to the computer, not from the computer). That speed—let’s call it “slowband”—never met Section 706’s definition of “high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications.”

In addition to not reporting on advanced telecommunications service, the FCC asks the industry to tell the public if it is providing service to at least one subscriber in a zip code. But subscriber lines and zip codes are not useful measures of deployment. The FCC data does not tell us where, in what might be a fairly large zip code area, service is being provided, or how many subscribers are using each line. Former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard and FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani argued in 2000 that the so-called “zip code data” was inadequate.

The apologists for this sorry state of affairs like to point to various private reports on broadband availability. For example, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported in July that “47 percent of all adult Americans have a broadband connection at home as of early 2007, a 5 percentage point increase from early 2006.” Without any intended disparagement of Pew, this supposedly exciting news comes from a telephone survey of 2,200 adults who were not asked about speeds or whether they were able to receive high-quality video service. In other words, they were not asked whether they had truly advanced telecommunications service.

The Pew data about African-American broadband use is even worse; it is based on a telephone survey of only 190 adults. Public policy should not be based on such limited surveys of such small samples. But then the American public does not pay Pew to gather data to assist the public or legislators in determining public policy. We do pay the FCC.

In addition to Senator Inouye’s proposed legislation, Rep. Rick Boucher has slightly revised and reintroduced his Universal Service Reform Act (H.R.2054), which would in part redefine broadband at 1Mbps and set a goal of achieving that within five years. Note that the majority of Japanese already have access to broadband 50 times that speed.

Rep. Ed Markey is also drafting legislation: “The Broadband Census of America Act,” which would reportedly require the FCC to increase its broadband threshold speed from 200Kbps to 2Mbps and require deployment information with at least the detail of nine-digit zip codes.

Sen. Inouye’s bill is the best of the bunch. Section 3 of that act would “establish a new definition of second generation broadband to reflect a data rate that is not less than the data rate required to reliably transmit full-motion, high-definition video.” I would add two terms: real-time and interactive.

We want advanced telecommunications service that will allow real-time robust two-way communication of full-motion, high-definition video. We want real-time two-way interactive transmission capability because it will help visiting nurses in homes and emergency technicians in the field communicate effectively with doctors in big city hospitals hundreds of miles away. We want high speed two-way interactive transmission because communication in the digital age should be from each to all. If this standard is good enough for the French and the Scandinavians and the Japanese and the Canadians, why isn’t it good enough for us?

Let’s stop setting standards and designing public policy based on what the private telecommunications and cable companies could do yesterday and what they are willing to tell us. Congress should set a standard for advanced telecommunications services that is worthy of our country and relevant to our needs, and challenge the so-called information providers to meet that. But Congress must also begin to hold the current FCC accountable.

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