How Did We Do with the National Broadband Plan?

FCC_New_LogoFive years ago the FCC published the National Broadband Plan. This was a monstrous 400 page document that laid forth a set of broadband goals for the first time. Within that document was a discussion of numerous goals the country should consider and the document remains an interesting list today – sort of a ‘want’ list for broadband policies and achievements.

The country has come a long way since 2010 in terms of broadband. We’ve seen numerous neighborhood fiber networks being built. We’ve seen cable modem technology get better and the speeds of those products are greatly improved, at least in major metropolitan areas. We’ve seen an explosion in smartphone usage and seen our cellular networks be largely upgraded to LTE 4G.

The FCC has led a few attempts to improve broadband. They have redirected the Universal Service Fund to bring broadband to rural areas and to bring broadband to schools and libraries. They have approved the use of more spectrum for cellular data. They have even updated the definition of broadband to a minimum of 25 mbps download as a way to goad providers to increase speeds.

Consider the six major goals adopted by the plan. Let’s see how we are doing on these:

Goal #1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second. This goal has mostly been met for download speeds and most urban areas now have cable modem products that can deliver at least 100 Mbps download. But we universally missed the 50 Mbps upload goal and I’m not entirely sure why that was set as a goal. But there are very few places in the country where the 100 Mbps product is affordable and so most households still buy something much slower.

Goal #2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation. While we have upgraded our mobile networks, a number of other countries have done it sooner and offer faster speeds. But I think this is eventually going to be taken care of as cellular network owners migrate to software defined networks where they can upgrade huge parts of the network at once.

Goal #3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose. The key word here is affordable and the US still has nearly the most expensive broadband among first world countries. While we have fast speeds available in many markets, they are often not affordable and the vast majority of people subscribe to something slower due to the economics. As the FCC recently pointed out, we don’t have much competition in the country and far too many people only have one or two options for buying broadband. And we still very much have a digital divide, be it a physical lack of broadband in rural areas are an economic barrier in poorer urban areas.

Goal #4: Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings. We have made some progress in this area, and through the Universal Service Fund we ought to be getting gigabit fiber to a lot more schools over the next few years. The big challenge for this goal is getting broadband to rural schools since there are numerous counties in the country that have barely any fiber.

Goal #5: To ensure the safety of the American people, every first responder should have access to a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband public safety network. We are slogging forward on this issue through the FirstNet program that intends to integrate all of the first responder networks into a single set of standards to insure interoperability. This is going to remain a challenge in rural areas where the wireless coverage is poor.

Goal #6: To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption. This really seems like an energy goal and not a broadband goal. But smart thermostats are now available at every hardware store that operate from home WiFi and that can be accessed using a smartphone. So, except in those areas with no broadband or cellular coverage, we have the technology to meet this goal. The percentage of homes with these devices is still relatively small, asking why this was a major broadband goal.

I can’t put a percentage on how we have done. Certainly people in urban areas have better broadband than they did five years ago, but affordability is still a major issue. The rural copper networks continue to age and deteriorate and while there is some construction of rural fiber, overall the rural areas are further behind the urban areas than they were five years ago. We are now seeing gigabit capable fiber networks starting to be made available to residents, but so far this reaches maybe one percent of homes in the country. There are still a surprisingly large number of people that still suffer with dial-up or satellite data who are being left behind. It will be interesting to see how much closer we are to those goals in five more years.

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