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FCC asks about the state of mobile broadband. Congress flips out.
Last week, twelve senators wrote to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expressing concern regarding the agency’s latest Notice of Inquiry. The senators’ letter echoes many arguments pressed by various interest groups. As I discussed in an earlier post, these arguments seem misguided, or at least premature, given that the agency is simply asking questions to get better information about the state of the industry. But congressional opposition to the Notice of Inquiry is especially odd, given that the proceeding is, well, required by Congress.
The Notice of Inquiry is an annual ritual mandated under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which requires the FCC to report each year whether “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” The inquiry thus asks the public for input regarding how it should go about doing so. In particular, the agency has asked for comment about how Americans currently use fixed and mobile broadband and what the minimum speed should be for mobile service to be considered “advanced telecommunications capability,” a question that, surprisingly, the FCC has not addressed before now.
It is the inclusion of mobile service that has interest groups, and certain senators, upset. They are concerned that the agency might conclude that some Americans access internet-based services on mobile networks rather than fixed broadband networks. And while this would give the agency a more complete view of how Americans access “advanced telecommunications capability,” their unstated concern is that it might also show that fewer of us are internet-impoverished, which undermines the case for regulation.
Of course, stripped of that political context, the idea that the agency should study how Americans use the internet, but ignore mobile use, is absurd. Mobile broadband is at least a partial substitute for traditional fixed broadband, and as the agency explains, consumers can increasingly do tasks via mobile apps that were once confined only to fixed connections. Moreover, 13% of households rely solely on a mobile connection for Internet access — some because fixed service is unavailable, but others because they choose not to incur two monthly broadband bills where one is sufficient.
Moreover, ignoring mobile service would violate the statute, which expressly states that the agency is to assess advanced telecommunications capability “without regard to any transmission media or technology, as high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology.” (Emphasis added.) The senators shouldn’t be surprised that the agency is asking about both fixed and mobile broadband use. It told them to do so. Twice in one sentence.
Given the wisdom of including mobile use, the agency’s next question is logical: What is the minimum speed for mobile internet access to count as “advanced telecommunications capability”? The letter criticized the agency for proposing a 10Mbps standard, which is lower than the 25Mbps benchmark for fixed broadband access. But as I discussed before, the agency has already blessed 10Mbps as the minimum speed for a service to receive broadband universal service funding, which is intended to deploy broadband to unserved areas. Moreover, Netflix — one of the most bandwidth-intensive consumer services — recommends 5Mbps per stream. It’s hard to say that a service fast enough to support multiple Netflix streams is nonetheless not “advanced telecommunications capability.”
Ultimately, the senators’ letter and similar complaints ignore the purpose of the Notice of Inquiry. They target what they assume will be the agency’s conclusions. But the Notice of Inquiry simply asks questions. The agency envisions mapping data to show which parts of the country have fixed and wireless access, which have one but not the other, and which are void of any advanced telecommunications capability. Through the comment process, interested parties can help shape the way the agency defines these terms and collects data. But it’s a mistake to criticize the agency for asking important and relevant questions.
Section 706 is designed to help the agency close the gap so the internet is available to more consumers. Given the cost of installing traditional fixed lines in rural areas, wireless and satellite must be part of the solution to bring broadband to the hardest-to-reach communities — just as it was when satellite television filled in the gaps left by traditional cable. To do that, the FCC must determine whether mobile service has converged sufficiently to be a substitute rather than a complement for fixed service. The answer will turn on what the agency discovers. But this is precisely the right question to ask.