By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
At a time in the United States when political opinions seem to fly to the extremes, with no middle ground, it’s no surprise that the FCC’s recent report on broadband deployment evokes a similarly polarized reaction.
Of the five commissioners who authored the report, three (including chairman Julius Genachowski) seem to believe that 95% penetration of fixed broadband by any technology (see graphic) is cause for alarm, citing the lack of broadband in rural areas and tribal lands. Two of the three commissioners filed dissents to the conclusions of the report.
Larry Downes, an Internet consultant writing in Forbes, called this conclusion “bizarre” and accused the FCC of an incipient power grab:
“Under section 706 of the 1996 Communications Act, the FCC must make an annual determination of whether broadband ‘is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.’ If not, the agency must take ‘immediate action’ to remove barriers that are keeping network operators from spending their investors’ money even faster. Which translates, on the majority’s view, into a vast array of regulatory powers that otherwise aren’t available to the agency.”
According to Troy Wolverton, writing in the San Jose Mercury-News from the heart of Silicon Valley, industry lobbying group Broadband for America called the report “inaccurate” and focused “too much on those who lack broadband and not enough on the investments made by broadband providers to improve access and speeds.”
The FCC did acknowledge the private sector’s $1 trillion investment in broadband deployment. “The private sector continues to do its part,” Wolverton quoted Broadband for America co-chairman John Sununu saying. “Rather than misrepresent this record, our government should be working with us to identify the best approach to reach the small percentage of rural homes without broadband access.”
Or should it? Is there a third element missing from the FCC report, beyond rural vs. urban? I submit that there is, and that missing element is context. It’s arguably encouraging having government officials admit, “We can do better,” rather than hollowly touting success. But pointing out the lack of rural broadband, especially when the percentage is in the single digits, misses the bigger picture: where does the U.S. sit in comparison with the rest of the world?
It’s not surprising that nobody wants to talk about that, because among the top 25 countries, the U.S. is 23rd in broadband penetration – and that’s down from 22nd place, according to research firm Point Topic. Only Cyprus and the Isle of Man trail the U.S., according to the latest figures from Q3 of last year.
Look at the graphic again, and note that fiber deployment is way down at 19 percent. The industry has done great at deploying broadband, but as the FCC report rightly notes, technology tends to move forward rapidly. This is one of those situations.
Instead of worrying about the lower 5 percent of Americans who don’t have broadband, why aren’t we worrying about the upper 5 percent of Americans who want to create new start-up companies but don’t have access to the super-fast broadband to do so?
If the FCC wants to make a power grab, why doesn’t it mandate fiber deployment where it will do the most good, rather than insisting that telecommunications companies eliminate demographic data from their determinations of where to deploy fiber?
Why not let broadband service providers deploy high-speed fiber in urban downtown areas, where companies will be most likely to happily pay a premium for it, and then use that income to backfill in other areas? And do that in radiating circles, from urban areas to suburban areas, and finally to rural areas.
If I had one message for the FCC, it would be to stop pitting urban versus rural, and start figuring out how to move the U.S. up the international ranks of broadband penetration.