The FCC’s 15th Annual Broadband Deployment Report

The FCC just released its most recent annual report on the state of US broadband. This report is mandated by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which requires the FCC to “determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion”. The FCC concludes in this latest report that broadband deployment is reasonable and that actions taken by this Commission are helping to close the broadband gap.

I take exception to several findings in this latest report. First, everybody in the country now understands that the FCC’s conclusions are based upon dreadfully inaccurate 477 data reported by ISPs. There have been numerous studies undertaken at the state and local levels that show that the FCC maps undercount households without broadband. Even USTelecom, the group mostly representing the largest telcos showed that the FCC maps in Missouri and Virginia classified 38% of rural homes as being served when in fact they were unserved. Microsoft has been gathering credible data showing that well over 150 million homes aren’t connecting at the FCC’s defined broadband speed of 25/3 Mbps.

For the FCC to draw any conclusions based upon inaccurate 477 data is ridiculous. A few years ago the FCC could have claimed to not understand the extent to which their data is flawed, but they’ve been shown extensive evidence that the 477 data is incredibly bad, and yet they still plowed forward in this report pretending that statistics based upon 477 data have any meaning. There is not one number in this report that has even the slightest amount of credibility and the FCC knows this.

With the knowledge that the FCC now has about the inaccuracy of their data, this FCC should have humbly admitted that they don’t know the number of households that don’t have broadband. The report could have discussed ways that the Commission is trying to fix the bad data and described steps they have taken to improve rural broadband. But for this report to lead off with a claim that the number of homes without broadband fell by 18% in 2018 is a joke – there is zero chance that’s an accurate statistic. This report should have stated that external analysis has shown that the state of broadband is a lot worse than what they’ve reported in prior annual reports.

I also take exception to the opening statement of the report where the FCC claims that its top goal is “closing the digital divide and bringing the educational, healthcare, social, and civic benefits of connectivity to all Americans seeking broadband access.” This FCC’s top goal is clearly to eliminate regulatory rules that create any obligations for the largest carriers. This FCC already completely deregulated broadband – something an agency would never do if their goal was to improve broadband access. Most of the major dockets that have been approved by this FCC have made it easier for the big carriers to deploy 5G or to otherwise avoid any regulatory burdens.

It’s insulting to the American people for the agency to state that their top goal is improving broadband when their actions show that their priorities are elsewhere. Regulatory agencies are not supposed to engage in propaganda, and this document reeks of self-promotion.

Finally, this report trots out the oft-repeated message that broadband is improving because of this FCC’s effort to remove barriers to broadband investment. I don’t think Chairman Pai makes a speech or writes an opinion that doesn’t bring up this disproved argument. We know by now that those without broadband fall into two categories – rural homes that don’t have access to a broadband connection and urban households that can’t afford broadband. The big telcos aren’t spending any of their cash to solve these two problems.

There has been a lot of fiber built in recent years. AT&T built fiber to pass 12 million homes as a condition for its merger with DirecTV – an effort the company announced was done this past summer. Verizon has been building fiber to bolster their cellular network, including an expansion of small cell sites – largely as a way to reduce their reliance on paying transport to others. These fiber efforts have nothing to do with the repeal of net neutrality and the ending of broadband regulation. Chairman Pai probably ought to cut back on making this claim, because his real legacy is that he’s emboldened the big cable companies to begin regularly increasing broadband rates since there’s no threat of regulatory oversight. Chairman Pai and his light-touch regulation will get the credit for why broadband costs $100 per month a few years from now.

Court Setback for Municipal Competition

Scale_of_justice_2_newThe Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the FCC didn’t have the authority to overturn state limitations on municipal broadband. Specifically the case looked at the two FCC orders that would have overturned state restrictions for Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina to expand their municipal systems to serve customers outside of their base service territory.

While this ruling has only been to one court so far, I could foresee an opposite reading from another court on the same facts. This is one of those cases working in the gray areas where the court has to interpret the intent of a law, not just the specific language.

The specific issue at hand in these cases was whether the FCC had the authority to overturn the state prohibitions against broadband under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In that Act the Congress had instructed the FCC and State Commissions as follows:

The Commission and each State commission with regulatory Jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms) by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment. (Bold emphasis is mine)

In that Act the Congress clearly told the FCC and State regulatory commissions to encourage broadband competition and to remove barriers to infrastructure investment. The judges in this case did not dispute that the FCC was tackling a barrier to infrastructure investment in their orders.

Interestingly, the court didn’t dispute any of the facts in the case. They recognized the benefits of fiber broadband and acknowledged that the areas where Chattanooga and Wilson want to build have no existing competition (or even any broadband). The court also recognized that the state laws in the two states were clearly barriers to infrastructure investment by the cities.

It would seem by accepting the facts presented by the cities that the court would then rule in their favor. But they didn’t and the court’s ruling boiled down to deciding that the FCC didn’t have a clear mandate to preempt state law under the authority of Section 706. The court says that the language in Section 706 is not strong enough to support preemption.

I guess it all comes down to an interpretation of language. Certainly the statute uses the word ‘encourage’ (instead of some stronger word). But the Act goes on to suggest that the FCC use the regulatory rules at its disposal (such as regulatory forbearance) to effectuate this encouragement. To me, a non-lawyer, that sounds like Section 706 is instructing the FCC to act, not just to passively encourage competition.

As is usual with these kinds of appeals, this case is not only an interpretation of the language that I’ve highlighted above. Various parties intervened in the case and argued that this was an issue of states’ rights versus federal authority. And I am sure that the politics and the underlying judicial philosophy on that larger issue had a lot to do with the decision.

The FCC is an interesting federal agency because they regularly preempt states’ rights on telecom issues. The most recent such decision was one that ordered state and local calling rates from prisons be reduced in line with federal rate guidelines. The agency has a long history of overriding state Commissions to bring state telecom rules in lines with FCC policies.

I’m not enough of a lawyer to understand if there is an obvious appeal to the Supreme Court, or what the likelihood of winning such an appeal might be. But I have followed appeals of FCC decisions for a long enough time in my career to see that this ruling is not strong enough to be the final word on the issue. I am sure we’ll see this topic come up again.

 

What Does the FCC Municipal Ruling Really Mean?

Scales-Of-Justice-12987500-300x300On the same day that the FCC passed its new net neutrality rules it also granted the petitions of Chattanooga TN and Wilson NC to allow them to expand their broadband networks. In both of these petitions the municipal network is surrounded by areas with poor or zero broadband, and residents of the area have been asking the two cities to extend their fiber network to serve them. But in both cases there were state laws that restricted the systems from expanding.

On the surface, the FCC ruling is only about these two specific cases, but the FCC has made it clear that they will entertain petitions by other jurisdictions that are being restricted by state laws. FCC Chairman Wheeler said in the ruling that there are several ‘irrefutable truths’ about broadband: “One is, you can’t say that you’re for broadband and then turn around and endorse limits on who can offer it. Another is that you can’t say, I want to follow the explicit instructions of Congress to remove barriers to infrastructure investment, but endorse barriers on infrastructure investment. You can’t say you’re for competition but deny local elected officials the right to offer competitive choices.”

While this ruling obviously gives great hope to many communities that don’t have broadband, there is still a long way to go until this ruling makes any practical difference in the market. There are already several parties that say they are going to challenge the ruling in court, so this issue will have to slog its way through the legal process before it goes into effect. The primary issue for a challenge is the FCC’s authority to overturn state restrictions on broadband.

The FCC is relying on language passed by Congress as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In that law, section 706 of the Act says the following:

SEC. 706. ADVANCED TELECOMMUNICATIONS INCENTIVES.

(a) IN GENERAL-The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms) by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.

Further, Section 253 of the Act also included language that that bars states from enacting laws that prohibited ‘any entity’ from providing any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service. I’ve read that language from the Act a number of times and it certainly, on the surface, seems to give the FCC the authority to override the telecom laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that stopped the municipal systems from expanding. I’ve chatted with a few of the legislators over the years that helped to write the Telecom Act and they believed that when they wrote the Act that they were enabling municipal competition.

But as is often the case, a law that Congress passes isn’t fully effective until it’s been tested in court. In this case there have been two prior challenges to the law. A year after the passage of the Act, the City of Abilene challenged the Texas law that was a flat ban on municipal competition in the state, and lost before the FCC and then on appeal to the federal Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. In 1997, Missouri also banned public entities from providing telecom services. Cities in the state challenged this at the FCC, lost and then appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously ruled in cities’ favor. The Supreme Court took the case and let the Missouri law stand.

But the current cases are different than the two prior challenges. Both of those cases challenged an outright ban to competition. But in the new cases, the cities asked to be relieved from specific restrictions that stopped them from expanding their existing service beyond a defined footprint. In Tennessee, the City of Chattanooga is restricted to offering broadband in the same area where they serve electric customers. In Wilson, the City is restricted to the City boundaries. In both cases there are nearby customers just outside of those boundaries that each city wants to serve, and the ruling gives them the right to expand.

So this is going to be up to the courts to decide. Certainly one thing has changed since those two earlier rulings in that the FCC is now in favor of overturning states’ rights. In the earlier cases the FCC ruled against the petitioners, and so the courts started with that refusal in judging the cases. These kinds of cases usually boil down to whether the FCC has the authority to rule, which is not exactly the same thing as ruling about whether the challenger to the law was right or wrong. In the last challenges the courts said that the FCC had the authority to deny the municipal petitions. This time any challenges will begin with an FCC ruling in favor of the cities and we’ll just have to wait and see if that makes any difference in the courts.