A New National Broadband Plan?

Christopher Terry recently published an article for the Benton Institute that details how the National Broadband Plan has failed. This plan was initiated by Congress in 2009, which instructed the FCC to develop a plan to make sure that every American had access to broadband within a decade. The article details the many spectacular ways that the plan has failed.

In my opinion, the National Broadband Plan never had the slightest chance of success because it didn’t have any teeth. Congress authorized the creation of the plan as a way for politicians to show that they were pro-broadband. The plan wasn’t much more than a big showy public relations stunt. Congress makes symbolic votes all of the time and this was just another gesture that demonstrated that Congress cared about broadband and that also served to quiet broadband proponents for a few years. If Congress cared about broadband they would have followed up the plan with a vote to force the FCC to implement at least some aspects of the plan.

I have no doubt that those who worked to develop the plan are likely offended by my post-mortem of the effort. I know that several people who worked on the plan still prominently display that fact in their resume a decade later. I’m sure that working on the plan was an exhilarating process, but at the end of the day, the effort must be measured in terms of success. The folks that created the plan and the rest of the country were duped by the FCC.

The FCC never had the slightest interest in adopting the big recommendations of the plan. There is probably no better evidence of this when the Tom Wheeler FCC awarded $11 billion to the big telcos in the CAF II process – an award that couldn’t have been more antithetical to the National Broadband Plan. To those that follow FCC dockets, there are dozens of examples over the last decade where the FCC sided with big carriers instead of siding with better rural broadband.

The fact is that the US government doesn’t do well with grandiose plans and lofty long-term goals. Government agencies like the FCC mostly implement things that are mandated by Congress – and even then they often do the bare minimum. Even without the National Broadband Plan, the FCC already has a Congressional mandate to make certain that rural broadband is equivalent to urban broadband – and we annually see them do a song and dance to show how they are complying with this mandate while they instead largely ignore it.

This is not to say that broadband plans are generically bad. For example, the state of Minnesota developed its own set of broadband goals, with the most prominent goal of defining broadband in the state as connections of at least 100 Mbps. The state has implemented that goal when awarding broadband grants, and unlike the FCC, the state has awarded grant funding to build real rural broadband solutions. They’ve refused to spend money on technologies that deliver speeds that the state doesn’t consider as broadband.

I fully expect to hear a plea to develop a new plan and I hope that most of the folks who are working for better broadband ignore any such effort. Compared to ten years ago there are now a lot of organizations working for better broadband. Hundreds of rural communities have created citizen broadband committees looking for a local solution. There are county governments all over the country making grants to help lure ISPs to serve their county. Statewide groups are working to solve the digital divide and the homework gap. There are a lot of people actively advocating for real broadband solutions.

These advocates don’t need a national goal document to tell them what they want. By now, communities understand good broadband in the simplest form – it’s something their community either has or doesn’t have. Communities now understand the digital divide and the homework gap. Wasting federal dollars to create a new National Broadband Plan wouldn’t move any community one inch closer to better broadband, and I hope we resist the temptation to go down that path.

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.