On Its 12th Anniversary, It’s Clear The 2010 U.S. ‘Broadband Plan’ Was A Colossal Dud

from the doomed-to-repeat-it dept

Today is the 12th anniversary of the release FCC’s National Broadband Plan (NBP).

In March of 2010, the FCC responded to Congress’s direction to develop a plan for broadband with the intent to ensure every American has “access to broadband capability.” This proposal was assembled with input across 36 public workshops, 31 public notices, 9 public hearings, and approximately 23,000 comments from more than 700 parties.

The NBP was ambitious, and first among its six stated objectives was the metric that, “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.”

As I have written about previously, both on day 3500 and again on day 3900 of the plan, the agency’s objectives for broadband deployment remain unfilled to this day. In fact, it is arguable that the FCC has been unable to achieve any of the stated objectives during the 4383 days since the plan was launched.

The Biden administration recently suggested some may not be achieved until 2030. You don’t take my word for it, in a process scheduled to run until September, the FCC celebrated the anniversary of the NBP last year by getting “A Running Start on New Broadband Maps.” 12 years later and the agency still lacks accurate data on broadband availability. Yes, really.

There are a range of theories about why the National Broadband Plan has been such a colossal policy disaster. Some of these theories involve the back and forth in ideology of the commission across three presidential administrations. Others have suggested the plan was far too ambitious to be successful. There’s also the traditional criticism of the FCC using the “capture thesis” that the FCC is too cozy with the cable companies and ISP’s it is charged with regulating.

I offer an alternative theory. The FCC’s loss of the initial net neutrality case, Comcast v. FCC derailed the implementation of the National Broadband Plan just 21 days after it was released. In the immediate aftermath of the Comcast decision, the FCC spent months trying to find a new “third way” to way to assert regulatory authority to the internet. But again, you don’t have to take my word for it, this “hostage video” from then Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks even louder than the opinion of the FCC’s General Counsel at the time.

As the FCC struggled to recover from the loss in Comcast, its “third way” approach would lead to another jurisdictional loss in Verizon v. FCC in 2014. By the time the FCC made the choice to apply Title II regulation in 2015, the mandates of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan were lost to the five years of the fight over the agency’s authority. The lengthy dispute derailed any significant effort by the FCC to implement the plan in way to make its goals achievable, a reality that continues today.

With the nomination of Gigi Sohn stalled in the Senate, and lacking accurate data on the local availability of broadband, the FCC is now trying to accelerate the process for developing a new map ahead of spending the $46 billion allocated for broadband in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.

Notably, having accurate information on where to spend these funds becomes critically important, as the FCC’s use of grants to supplement commercial broadband infrastructure remains an expensive proposition, with cost per connections running as high as $3631 each. With the data collection scheduled to be completed in September, even if this map is better than its predecessors, we’re still many months out from meaningful action to reach metrics on objectives, including universal access, that were intended to be achieved by March of 2020.

So, for now, Happy Anniversary. I will see you again next year.

Christopher Terry is an assistant professor of media law in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow for the Center for Quantum Networks.

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