Macworld.com (among other news and tech outlets) recently reported the latest FCC report arguing that the deployment of broadband internet service is not expanding at an acceptable pace. Moreover, expectations of the the speed of broadband need to be upgraded to match technology developments. According to the MacWorld article, “The report, required by Congress, is an “honest look” at the state of broadband in the U.S., Julius Genachowski, the FCC’s chairman, said in a statement.” (The official statement of the ambitions of the FCC concerning broadband distribution can be found here.) But, like most any statement in an election year, the politics of the report has become a notable talking point.
In particular, the report focuses on the gaps in service endured by many who do not have broadband and who are thus (according to the FCC’s position) missing out on the economic, social, and educational opportunities of the modern web. In a report in the New York Times from this past March by Matt Richtel and Brian Stelter,
Chief among its goals, the F.C.C. wants future broadband investment to be focused on the areas where gaps in service remain. It will direct this investment in part through the Universal Service Fund, a program for telephone and Internet access, costing $8 billion annually, paid through a phone bill surcharge. Over time, the subsidies for Internet will increase and those for phone will dissipate, with the knowledge that people can make online calls.
Yet Republicans in Congress who have received the report challenge the FCC’s definitions and the regulatory commission’s abilities to intervene in the broadband market place. From the MacWorld writeup: “Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the FCC, said he disagreed with the report’s conclusions. This report is a “180-degree reversal” from earlier reports, he said. “Instead of focusing on the great strides that America has made in broadband deployment … this report emphasizes subscribership,” he said in a statement. “Collecting granular data, including subscribership numbers, is important. But, subscribership data does not equate to the ‘availability’ of broadband. In many instances the Report confuses the facts by substituting the terms ‘deployment’ and ‘subscribership’ as if they were synonymous and interchangeable.”
The point of definition is certainly a valid one prima facie. Broadband could be available in a community, even if a significant number of people do not want to subscribe to its services. Few would argue that the government has the right to enforce subscribership. but the questions should be asked if people are aware of benefits of broadband, or if lack of competition has kept subscription rates too high. “Broadband providers have invested an average of $27 billion in their networks between 2003 and 2009, added Meredith Baker, another Republican member of the FCC. The congressional mandate for the FCC to examine broadband deployment doesn’t require universal access by 2010, she said. “The question is whether network providers continue to make demonstrable progress towards that goal,” she said in a statement. “All evidence suggests that answer be made in the affirmative.”
Even proponents of the plan argue that the FCC is fudging definitions of what needs to be improved and how. From the blog:
But in numerous instances these ideas are barely fleshed out, ignoring or side-stepping some of the more vexing issues that the FCC will surely face trying to turn paper into policy. The plan sets some laudable goals, but it is hard to see how the recommendations in the plan will result in the realization of those goals. Ultimately, it seems that the plan failed to include “a detailed strategy for achieving affordability” of broadband. Though it acknowledged the lack of competition in our broadband markets, the FCC punted confronting this problem to the often dead-end recommendation of “collecting more data.”
Nevertheless, the unmentioned elephants in the room are the lobbyists that major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) plant in the halls of power that consumers and their groups can not afford. Larger ISPs do not want to state the specifics of regions they cover or the speeds consumers enjoy in those areas (all in the name of ‘free enterprise,’ though those same lobbyists encourage the muscling out of smaller providers from such markets). “The real reason ISPs don’t want that data exposed is because it would show limited competition and significant coverage gaps, resulting in new laws aimed at fixing things, and in turn lowering revenues. Instead, the government has willfully used flawed data that suggests everything is rosy.” (from DSLReports.com, 8 August 2009)
Our blog has often noted statistics about US broadband costs and services compared to other (post-)industrialized nations, and we have argued that the size and diversity of the country will make universal access trickier and more expensive than for most other countries. Yet the argument here has become dangerously politicized and partisan, like so many other concerns our country faces. Republicans want less regulation by government (but are happy to let lobbyists and corporate donors dictate participation in the ‘market’). Democrats want to hold their coalition together while stating (not necessarily acting upon) their desire to open up opportunity for internet access to as many citizens as possible. Of course, Democrats want to be (re)elected as well, and are not immune from corporate lobbying.
Broadband, like the earlier cement highways paid for by the conservative Republican Eisenhower Administration (with tax increases, no less!), needs to be a ‘post-partisan’ issue if the American citizens, workers, professionals, and consumers, are not to be left isolated from an otherwise wired world.