FCC Slowly Realizing Science And Data Are Kind Of Important
from the maybe-regulators-should-study-what-they're-regulating dept
Once upon a time, FCC Commissioners were engineers, thinkers and experts across a variety of fields. These days the well-lobbied agency's stable of Commissioners is populated exclusively with lawyers, politicians and revolving-door lobbyists, and as you might expect -- its primary product (no matter which party is in control) is quite often partisan bickering and broken policy. The nation's recently unveiled first-ever national broadband plan is only the latest example of the kind of product the agency now creates, paying lip service to a myriad of industry problems but doing very little about the state of competition in the sector. Granted, to some, the plan looks good -- focusing on feel-good efforts like "digital eduction" -- but there's very little in the plan that really challenges the status quo.
The majority of bad FCC policies are unsurprisingly driven by bad data. The agency has made huge broadband industry policy decisions over the last decade using completely useless data that overestimated the volume of competition in the market. The rosy picture painted by the FCC was in part thanks to the confidential, unverifiable data provided by carriers, who have a vested interest in data that doesn't try very hard to highlight limited coverage, slow speeds, or high prices. The FCC is only just now getting around to actually collecting comprehensive broadband price data or mapping broadband availability, though in many states this latter job was simply doled out to friends of the phone companies.
While the FCC is still pushing into territory that may be better suited to the FTC, there's at least a few signs the FCC is trying to fulfill their recent promises that they'll be a more data-driven agency. In a post over at the FCC blog, the FCC's Dave Vorhaus notes that the agency has picked UK speedtest firm SamKnows to help them test the real-world speeds obtained by home users. SamKnows does similar testing for British regulator Ofcom, and it helps the regulator determine if a consumer is getting what they pay for. While normal speedtests will illustrate whether a user is getting full speed, SamKnows uses in-home residential routers with modified firmware to specifically determine why. According to Vorhaus, the FCC is looking for volunteers to help them collect data:
In a couple of weeks, we will be asking for consumers from across the country to voluntarily install hardware in their homes (on an opt-in basis) that is capable of measuring broadband performance. The measurements will give us results across a broad swath of providers, service tiers and geographic areas. More details on how to volunteer will follow in the coming weeks. We are tremendously excited about this announcement, the next step in the process of increasing transparency and competition in the broadband market and better informing consumers about their broadband service.While the selection of a UK firm might raise the hackles of those who think that job should have been given to a U.S. company (a Wall Street Journal blog headline makes a jab about stimulating the British economy), SamKnows is among the best in the telecom sector at this particular job, and is also used by UK ISPs to assess their own network performance. Of course quality data won't mean anything if the FCC doesn't use it to make smart policy choices (like realizing that fixing competition helps fix things like network neutrality without additional regulation). You also have to wonder if the FCC's going to have a lot of free time, given the recent Comcast ruling all but ensures the agency is going to spend the next two years bogged down in a bare-knuckled fight with carrier lobbyists.