Legislation Would Force New Broadband Rates
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The Senate Commerce Committee took the first step yesterday to improve the quality of broadband data used by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In a vote, the committee unanimously approved legislation to require the agency to revise its calculations on high-speed connection penetration rates.
The FCC currently measures broadband availability by ZIP code. A single broadband subscriber in a ZIP counts as the entire ZIP code being served. Critics of the metric contend the numbers inflate U.S. broadband penetration rates, particularly in large, rural areas.
The Broadband Data Improvement Act (S. 1492) would require broadband providers to report high-speed connections within nine-digit ZIP code areas. It would also require the FCC to create a new definition of "second-generation broadband" to reflect speeds capable of transmitting full motion, high-definition video.
The FCC currently considers 200 kilobits (Kbps) the threshold definition of high-speed Internet services.
Based on that formula, the FCC estimates DSL connections are available to 79 percent of the country and cable modem connections cover 93 percent of U.S. households.
In addition to deeper FCC data, the bill calls for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to develop broadband metrics that may be used to provide consumers with broadband connection cost and capability information. In addition, it directs the Census Bureau to include a question in its American Community Survey that assesses dial-up and broadband subscribership.
"The broadband deployment data currently required by the FCC is woefully inadequate, leaving policymakers literally in the dark as they try to craft critical legislation and regulations," the Consumers Union said in a statement.
Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of public policy advocacy group Public Knowledge, also praised the legislation.
In order to begin to fashion a new policy, we must have better data," Sohn said in a statement. "This legislation will go a long way to taking the important step of giving policymakers accurate information that is needed if the United States is to raise its standing in the world rankings for the availability of broadband service."
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. currently ranks 15th in the world in broadband deployment. In 2000, the OECD ranked the U.S. fourth with the U.S. falling to 12th in 2006.
Others, though, contend the OECD numbers are misleading. Washington-based think tank The Phoenix Center published numbers this week that claims to show the U.S. broadband penetration rate is equal to expectations considering economic and demographic conditions.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) voted for the bill but expressed reservations.
"I worry that the provisions addressing broadband speeds and smaller geographic areas in this bill could inadvertently paint a picture of an America without broadband that is not accurate," he said in a statement.
Stevens added, "I am not sure that Congress, rather than the FCC, should be getting into this level of detail, particularly given technological changes, such as compression technologies that could make these standards a moving target."
In April, the FCC launched its own inquiry into whether high-speed Internet services are rolling out in a "reasonable and timely fashion" to Americans.