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Broadband Mission Accomplished?

Instead of an aircraft carrier, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin landed on the pages of the Wall Street Journal in early July and declared, “we are well on our way to accomplishing the president’s goal of universal, affordable access to broadband by 2007.” This is an outrageous deception based on the same sort of misleading statistics and rigged numbers that have become a hallmark of the current administration.

In Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress required the Federal Communications Commission to determine whether deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans is occurring in a reasonable and timely manner. But for nearly ten years now the FCC has failed to provide the American public accurate and useful information about the deployment of advanced telecommunications services in the U.S. Despite the clear importance of high-speed Internet service to education, health care, economic competition, and safety in the U.S., we still don’t know who has advanced service in the U.S., whether it is reliable, how much it costs, or what might work to make sure all Americans have access to it.

Let’s take a look at what Martin’s flying in on. “In 2004, broadband subscribership increased by 34%,” he writes. Martin gets this impressive number because there was an apparent increase from 28.2 million subscribers in 2003 to 37.9 million in 2004. In the context of over 25 million businesses and over 105 million households, an increase of 9 million subscribers seems far less impressive than 34%. But let’s not quibble too much with the tricks of percentage increases (an increase from one to two is a 100 percent increase). There are three big problems with Martin’s statement.

The first problem is that the term “broadband” has been so distorted by the FCC that it cannot be confused with what the Congress asked the FCC to find out about, namely advanced telecommunications capability. While the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and other experts argue that the definition of broadband should be a moving target, no group agrees with the low U.S. definition that crawls at 200 kilobits per second. The FCC definition would not support any application that could be called advanced. Canada defines broadband as follows:

Based on today’s technology and applications, a high-capacity, two-way link between end user and access network suppliers capable of supporting full-motion interactive video applications delivered to all Canadians on terms comparable to those available in urban markets by 2004. A minimum symmetrical speed of 1.5 megabits per second per individual user is currently required to support these applications. Leading up to 2004 and beyond, new applications such as peer-to-peer file interactions and video conferencing will increase individual user demand for symmetric bandwidth in the 4-to-6 Mbps range. Public and commercial facilities will require much higher bandwidth, ranging from this minimum to several hundred times more, depending on their size and user needs.

The fact is we have no idea how many households or businesses or other entities have access to Internet connections in the 1.5 mbs range, not to mention the speeds Canada thinks will be needed to support advanced applications.

This brings us to the second problem. A number of respectable papers have reported that “DSL Leads High-Speed Surge,” but have failed to tell us where this surge was supposed to have occurred. Was it in rural medical facilities, or urban schools, or suburban households driven by James Earl Jones to a DSL frenzy? Again, the FCC stats give us no idea. The FCC tells us there is at least one subscriber in “95% of the nation’s zip codes.” But of course, in some parts of the country a zip code can stretch for miles and miles. So, again, we have data that only pretends to inform us.

A third problem is that the information the FCC is reporting to the public comes from surveys passed to and from an industry with an interest in avoiding both public oversight and the competition of publicly owned companies. Section 706 suggests that if the FCC finds that deployment of broadband service is moving slowly, then it should establish policies to ensure industry does a better job. Does it really make sense to ask the industry for the data that would determine whether the FCC will regulate them? In an upcoming column I will detail a project to address this problem, but at the moment let’s just treat this as a rhetorical question.

And this leads to the final point. According to Martin, “the U.S. leads the world in the total number of broadband connections,” and he complains that in 2004 the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) unfairly compares the U.S. to small, densely populated nations such as Japan. As the OECD data show, the U.S. is also behind not-so-small, not-so-densely-populated Canada. [link to chart]

The ITU 2005 report paints an even worse picture, with the U.S. slipping from 13th in 2004 to 16th in 2005. The ITU puts Canada in 5th place. [link to chart]

Unlike Martin and the U.S. broadband companies, neither the OECD nor the ITU have a reason to fiddle with the broadband figures.

If Congress got anything right in 1996, it was Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. The Martin FCC makes a mockery of its responsibility to find and report the facts about the deployment of advanced telecommunications services to the public. As the Supreme Court ended its 2004-2005 term it announced an important decision in a dispute about broadband competition between the FCC and the Ninth Circuit. The basis of the Court’s decision was that the FCC is the expert agency regarding telecommunications matters and that the Ninth Circuit should defer to the expert. An FCC that ignores the intent of Congress and refuses to even determine where advanced telecommunications services are located suggests it does not deserve such deference.

As other nations race to make sure they have the critical infrastructure to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s global digital environment, we should not be comforted by Chairman Martin’s declaration of victory.

Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.