NCTA

What's New From NCTA

A Broadband Progress Report

A Broadband Progress Report

Although perhaps not as certain as the beauty of the cherry blossoms or the excitement of Opening Day at Nationals Park, the debate over the FCC’s Section 706 Report is an annual rite of spring in Washington these days. In the Section 706 Report, Congress requires the Commission to “determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”  In the first five reports, the Commission found that deployment was reasonable and timely.  Last year, however, in the Sixth 706 Report, the Commission for the first time made a negative finding. What happened in that fateful year?  Nothing materially different from the year before, except that the Commission moved the goal posts – instead of conducting a year-over-year assessment of our relative progress, the Commission found that progress was not “reasonable and timely” because 100% of Americans do not yet have access to broadband. We have no quarrel with the Commission’s laudable sentiment, but as we noted at the time, that aspirational goal is not the litmus test Congress envisioned within the 706 inquiry.  Indeed, we are yet to reach this level of success for far older technologies like electricity and phone service, and in other contexts the Commission has plainly acknowledged that delivering wired broadband service to the last 2-3 percent of homes is so expensive as to be untenable, even with government subsidies. Unfortunately, recent press reports indicate that the Commission is again considering a negative finding in its upcoming Seventh 706 Report. From NCTA’s perspective, the news on the deployment front continues to be extremely positive.  On the cable side, Comcast’s recent announcement that it is offering 105 Mbps service to 40 million homes is just the latest in a series of announcements from cable operators over the last year that support the view that investment is continuing and that deployment of the latest technologies is growing.  At year-end 2010, next generation speeds of 50 Mbps or faster were offered to more than 80 million homes by cable operators, and robust current generation cable broadband was available to more than 123 million housing units. To the extent the Commission’s conclusion relies on data collected in connection with the National Broadband Map, it is widely acknowledged that the initial version of the map almost certainly understates broadband availability in the U.S. Notwithstanding these problems, the map shows overall broadband availability at roughly 95 percent and, as some observers have suggested, the actual figure may be as high as 97 percent. Consequently, while improvements to future versions of the map offer the prospect of a more definitive source of availability data, the map should be viewed as a supplemental source for the current 706 inquiry that bolsters, rather than undermines, a conclusion of reasonably and timely deployment. Indeed, far from lagging the world, the United States continues to lead, and for the second year running ranks 5th in the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index – a measure used over the last decade to gauge the degree to which developed and developing countries across the world leverage information and communication technologies (ICT) for enhanced competitiveness. Although we may have to “agree to disagree” with the Commission about what qualifies as “reasonable and timely” broadband deployment, we are in complete agreement on the best strategy for moving closer to our shared goal of universal broadband availability. In last year’s 706 report, the Commission identified certain key recommendations from the National Broadband Plan as critical to promoting investment and accelerating deployment, including pole attachment reform and USF reform.  NCTA has fully supported these recommendations. With respect to the former, the Commission has done yeoman’s work recently in adopting strong pole attachment rules.  With respect to the latter, the Commission has rightly teed up critical reforms that are needed to update our existing subsidy system to better reflect the realities of today’s competitive communications marketplace, including proposals to target subsidies for broadband deployment to unserved areas. While such changes do not offer a guarantee of reaching all Americans with broadband, they do offer the prospect of tangible progress that we should all agree is worthy of positive recognition.