FCC Prepares To Weaken Broadband's Definition To Hide Competitive, Coverage Issues

from the not-particularly-subtle dept

Under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, the FCC is required to consistently measure whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans uniformly and “in a reasonable and timely fashion.” If the FCC finds that broadband industry is failing at this task (you may have noticed that it is), the agency is required by law to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment” and by “promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”

Of course given that the telecom sector is often the poster child for regulatory capture, this mandate often gets intentionally lost in the weeds. This is usually accomplished by simply pretending the lack of competition doesn’t exist. Or worse, by meddling with broadband deployment metrics until the numbers show something decidedly different from the reality on the ground. It’s a major reason why broadband ISPs (and the lawmakers who love them) whine incessantly every time we try to update the definition of broadband to a more reasonable and modern metric.

As such, we engage in this endless tug of war depending on how grossly-beholden the current FCC regulators are to regional telecom duopolies. Regulators not blindly loyal to giant ISPs will usually try to raise the bar to match modern needs, as Tom Wheeler did when he bumped the standard definition of broadband to 25 Mbps down, 4 Mbps up back in 2015. Revolving door regulators in turn do everything in their power to manipulate or ignore real world data so that the industry’s problems magically disappear.

Case in point: the FCC is expected to vote in February on a new proposal that would dramatically weaken the standard definition of broadband. Under the current rules, you’re not technically getting “broadband” if your connection in slower than 25 Mbps down, 4 Mbps up. Under Pai’s new proposal, your address would be considered “served” and competitive if a wireless provider is capable of offering 10 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up to your area. While many people technically can get wireless at these speeds, rural availability and geography make true coverage highly inconsistent.

The original notice of inquiry (pdf) proposed by the FCC tries to frame this manipulation of the data as a matter of efficiency, asking:

“Given that Americans use both fixed and mobile broadband technologies, we seek comment on whether we should evaluate the deployment of fixed and mobile broadband as separate and distinct ways to achieve advanced telecommunications capability. Taking into account the differences between the various services and the geographic, economic, and population diversity of our nation, we seek comment on focusing this Section 706 Inquiry on whether some form of advanced telecommunications capability, be it fixed or mobile, is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. Would such an inquiry best follow the statutory instruction to evaluate the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability “without regard to any transmission media or technology?”

And while that’s designed to sound reasonable on its surface, industry analysts like Doug Dawson have quickly pointed out that there’s all manner of issues with this effort. One, wireless simply isn’t equivalent to a fixed-line connection and may not be for a decade or more in many rural markets, where users not only pay an arm and a leg for capped and metered service, but are often kicked off the network for using these connections like traditional, unlimited fixed-line connections. Folks who believe wireless to be some magical competitive panacea often like to ignore usage caps and higher prices of cellular:

“There is a monstrous difference in price between landline and cellular data. A household using 100 gigabytes of cellular data in the month might pay nearly $1,000 per month. Most ISPs report that the average US household now uses between 150 and 200 gigabytes of broadband per month. It?s hard to think of cellular broadband as a substitute for landline broadband with such disparate pricing.”

Folks that think wireless competition will come and save us all also like to ignore the fact that just two carriers hold a monopoly over business data services and backhaul connections that feed towers, something Ajit Pai’s FCC also recently tried to downplay when they redefined what constitutes competition in that segment as well. Again, the goal here isn’t efficiency, it’s illusion:

“The major reason that counting cellular data as equivalent to landline data is that it?s going to largely take the FCC off the hook for promoting broadband. They currently have directed billions from the Universal Service Fund to help build faster broadband networks, mostly in rural America. They can discontinue such programs and not expand their effort if most of rural America is considered to have broadband. With a simple vote a large percentage of rural homes on the wrong side of the digital divide will suddenly have broadband. That?s going to be big news to rural people who already understand that cellular broadband is not really broadband.”

Again, it’s so much easier to justify your apathy to a problem (in this case, broadband coverage and pricing problems caused by market failure and a lack of competition) when you manipulate the data to suggest the problem somehow doesn’t exist.

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Comments on “FCC Prepares To Weaken Broadband's Definition To Hide Competitive, Coverage Issues”

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36 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

Apathy? No, no my friend, it’s plain old collusion between A Shit Pie and Republicans in general with the telcos. Rural areas are not profitable, it’s not worth laying the cables and you can’t have people not being gouged by your abusive practices on the wireless part, right? Which is why the govt should be protecting those people. But it seems money is worth much more than people to A Shit Pie.

Hope this further extended middle finger to Americans is also contested in the courts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“…broadband coverage and pricing problems caused by market failure and a lack of competition)”

Geeez, after all the years of discussion here about this issue and deep TD criticism of government regulatory failures & regulatory-capture — we’re back to the favorite leftish square one in 2018.
It’s now somehow all caused by “market failure”.

aerinai says:

Re: Re: Re:

There is nothing ‘left’ about this. The majority of Americans are for Net Neutrality and for better internet for all.

This is quite literally the definition of market failure and regulatory capture. If you don’t see that, you are purposefully burying your head in the sand.

Market Failure — 10.6 million homes have NO access to fixed-line broadband internet. 2/3 of Americans only have ONE option for broadband internet. That is by definition market failure.

Regulatory Capture — Stopping municipalities from creating their own alternative when there isn’t one; Throwing up nuisance lawsuits to stop other companies from competing, such as Google. Suing city-by-city to stop One-Touch-Make-Ready pole attachments to speed adoptions. Stopping states from passing their own Net Neutrality laws written almost exclusively by the big telcos… That is by definition regulatory capture.

If users actually had competition, TD would quit covering this since there wouldn’t be a problem, no matter what the FCC did. If a company acted like an ass-hat, they’d be held accountable by users leaving them in droves. Currently that isn’t possible since you literally can’t leave for another provider.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“If users actually had competition, TD would quit covering this since there wouldn’t be a problem”

Indeed. You may notice that, while TD regularly posts stories about all sorts of other subjects involving countries outside of North America, you never see anything posted on ISP choice and the like, except to note where it’s far better than the US consumer has available. Perhaps the effective regulation and competition has something to do with that.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If this is the usual "regulations" guy, his position appears to be that:

  • Regulations which have been in place for decades have raised the bar to entering the market, thereby protecting the incumbents and preventing competition from occurring. (This is what he means when he talks about "regulatory capture".)
  • Therefore we do not have, and never have had, a free market in this field.
  • Therefore the free market has not failed here, because we haven’t tried it.
  • Therefore what we have here is not a market failure.

As evidence for this, he cites the fact that the establishing documents of the FCC talk about "regulating natural monopoly". He interprets this to represent a statement of intention to protect and support the companies which have local monopolies in this market, rather than break up or prevent such monopolies. He therefore concludes that the FCC has been corrupt and protectionist from its very outset, and for that matter in its official reason for existing.

In so doing, he fails to recognize – or (more likely) outright rejects – what the term "natural monopoly" actually means (despite the fact that it has been explained to him many times in past comment threads); it’s not a kind of monopoly which can be prevented or abolished, although one can occasionally be rendered obsolete by later technological development.

Anonymous Coward says:

One, wireless simply isn’t equivalent to a fixed-line connection

And never will be, as a cell tower fed by a fiber has less capacity than the fiber, indeed all the cell towers anybody can see from a fixed location have less capacity in combination than a single fiber.Radio spectrum is limited, and cell technology can only use 1/7 of the available spectrum in any one cell, at best, as surrounding cells, cannot use the same frequencies because that would interfere with traffic within the cell.

Anonymous Coward says:

meaning of broadband

Maybe they should just drop the term “broadband” from their vocabulary since the word seems to have lost almost all meaning. Broadband originally meant anything faster than common dialup connection speeds, so even a 64kbit/s ISDN line was once considered a broadband connection, at least in the early internet days.

Anonymous Coward says:

I'm an hour from the capitol of the United States

Here are my Internet connection choices:

1. Dialup
2. DSL – and that’s questionable, as the aging copper plant is poorly maintained and Verizon is clearly not interested in spending a dime on it, or on the CO.

That’s it. There’s no Comcast. There’s no Verizon FIOS. There’s no wireless ISP. And cellular connectivity is iffy, even for voice/text, because of the hilly, rural terrain — so that’s not really a viable option for Internet traffic.

DSL, on a good day, yields 2M down and 350K up. Today it’s cold and windy, so this is not a good day. I’ll be lucky if it stays up at all.

Reminder: an hour from the capitol of the United States.

Imagine what the choices are like for people in the poor sections of Detroit or the farms of South Dakota or any place that’s not densely populated with people who can afford actual broadband. Imagine what the choices are like for people who can’t afford multiple options (using one to supplement the other) and/or who don’t have the technical skills to switch between them and/or who can’t afford them.

It’s 2018, and the country which birthed the Internet has failed to provide ubiquitous baseline connectivity to every residential and business address in the country. The impact on education, business, health, and every other sector of life is enormous: we’re not anywhere close to where we could be if something as simple as 10M/10M was as universal as electrical or water service.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I'm an hour from the capitol of the United States

The technical requirements (e.g., signal/noise ratio) for dialup over copper are less than those for DSL over copper. Thus a POTS line which isn’t completely clean and presents issues when used for DSL may perform well enough to be just fine for dialup. Of course a properly-maintained POTS line should work for both (provided the physical run is within the distance limitation for DSL) but the key word there is “properly-maintained” and Verizon has little interest in that.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

At current 25/3 broadband speeds, this is the FCC’s estimate of roughly how many broadband providers households have (errs on the high side):

  • 30% have zero providers
  • 48% have one provider
  • 19% have two
  • 3% have three or more

With a dumbed-down 10/1 speed those numbers become:

  • 0% x0
  • 10% x1
  • 26% x2
  • 63% x3

Suddely competition problem "solved."

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: But wait, it gets worse!

Not so surprisingly(given the source), but the FCC’s attempt to redefine ‘broadband’ as 10/1 is actually only the second worst definition in the works.

As noted in an article a just a few weeks back, life-long telecom cheerleader Marsha Blackburn proposed a bill that would(among it’s other many problems) define broadband as almost literally anything other than dialup.

The text from the bill in question, if you think I’m joking:

(A) IN GENERAL.—The term ‘broadband internet access service’ means a mass-market retail service by wire or radio that provides the capability to transmit data to and receive data from all or substantially all internet endpoints, including any capabilities that are incidental to and enable the operation of the communications service, but excluding dial-up internet access service.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

Re: Re: But wait, it gets worse!

So that would allow for the leftmost bar on the chart, with the lowest shown not-currently-broadband speed of 3M/768k.

  • 0% x0
  • 6% x1
  • 19% x2
  • 75% x3+

So, "better" coverage than the 10/1, but not by much.

And just for completeness’ sake, here’s the breakdown of the chart’s fourth bar, covering 100/10 Mbps:

  • 55% x0
  • 35% x1
  • 9% x2
  • 1% x3+

6 19 75

Anonymous Coward says:

Some many great ideas to accomplish the FCCs goals. Pai is such a visionary. I mean who would have thought to lower the bar? I bet that is why he cancelled his event at CES, doesn’t have the time with all goals they are accomplishing. If we are lucky, by the time Pai is done, we will find that we no longer need the FCC.

ECA (profile) says:

tHE IDEA OF simplified knowledge

There is no such thing.
Simplifying only complicates things..

BREAK DOWN the numbers to certain categories..
Cities/ towns, Sub, rural..
Then break down speeds, and then access..

THEN separate out WIRELESS/CELL/WIRED/FIOS..

100/1(100meg/1meg or 150meg/5meg)(CAP is 400 gig) SUCKS..in a household of more then 2 people. EVEN 2 people using the system for movies, games, chat, …, … will run over that VERY VERY quickly..

Iv talked to others on the net, with varing speeds and caps, and its a CONVOLUTED BATCH OF SPAGHETTI STRINGS..
If I have to explain Ping/Lag and how the signal gets from here and there, and everything that can HAPPEN in the middle, is a scary thought.
Sending a signal thru 4-16+ locations to get to 1 location on the net, SOMEPLACE in this world..And then trying to talk, play, read, Watch Videos..relies on the interactions of EVERYONE OF THOSE connections. And Stability of the system. WE have a system that can run at NEAR Speed of light(with fiber optic), unless you want to go back to COPPER and slow this down…MOST of the main lines have been installed..Between most of the towns and cities.

After the Twin towers and the Adaption of internet and telecom monitoring(Which is a VERY BIG THING(from phone/net/cable/sat/,..,)) YOU COULD SEE, where we were being monitored, and what was happening to the connections around this country. Much of it is still happening, AND WE ARE PAYING FOR IT..

For the price I pay to have the internet…
Others are paying AS MUCH for services ranging from 3mb to 1gb(Im paying $80 for 150mbps).

Most of WHAT is not down, is MAINTENANCE..the corps want to live with WHAT IS THERE, WHAT WAS IN PLACE, What was installed 20-40 years ago..BY another company, from 2-3 Business’s ago..

THEY WANT ONLY the PROFIT of what is installed, they DONT want to create the wheel, they wish to RUN on the Bare RIM of what is left of the WHEEL.

Anonymous Coward says:

SpaceX might do a lot to help save the internet. They are planning a satellite based internet system and unlike systems in the past the satellites will be lower and capable of much better service. That and with the reduction in cost of sending up satellites from the reusable boosters it should be cost competitive.
If it works out to be a viable option and SpaceX runs it well then enough people might jump to it to cause the ISPs real trouble. Maybe that will finally open up internet service allowing better companies to step in and clean things up due to real competition.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

No, it won’t. One of the problems with all satellite-based Internet connectivity is latency, and there’s no way around that. (Because physics) A secondary problem is antenna location, which is very easier for some people and nearly impossible for others.

None of this would be necessary if there was fiber to every building in the country and actual competition to deliver services over it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

LEO requires many more satellites and they have to hand off the connections when they go out of view. Iridium was chosen as the name of such a system because they figured they would need 77 satellites to support their LEO sat phone system. Interestingly, they only needed 66. I’m not privy to their math, but it must be interesting.

JoeCool says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Yes, just because latency shouldn’t be an issue doesn’t mean it’s all peaches and cream. They will need lots of satellites (which they planned from the get-go), the equipment will need to transfer to whatever satellites can be reached much like cell phones where the towers move around you, and there will always be the issue of weather causing outages. It will be interesting to see how these satellite net providers do over the next several years… if they can actually provide competition that is sorely lacking.

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