More Info For Better Broadband

The broadband debate is no longer about whether the United States is falling behind in the race, but rather it is about how far and what can be done about it.

With Congress already planning a hearing next week on the pace of U.S. broadband deployment, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said late Monday it is launching an inquiry into whether high-speed Internet services are rolling out in a “reasonable and timely fashion” to Americans.

The FCC is also seeking input about the often criticized data the agency collects to set broadband policy.

“Between these two proceedings, it is my hope the Commission will solicit the information necessary to better assess the competitive progress in the broadband market,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement.

In the most recent rankings published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has the most broadband subscribers (65 million) among the 30 nations surveyed but finished 12th in subscribers per 100 citizens. The U.S. also lags behind a number of countries in broadband speeds available to consumers.

In another study, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), ranks the U.S. 15th in broadband penetration. The same group slots the U.S. as 21st on its Digital Opportunity Index.

“Can we finally agree that something drastic needs to be done?” FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps asked in his statement on the new proceedings. “We need to know why so many Americans do not have broadband, and why those who do are paying twice as much for connections one-twentieth as fast as those enjoyed by customers in some other countries.”

Martin admitted “there is more we can do,” beginning with better data-collection techniques. Currently, the FCC determines broadband penetration rates by the number of subscribers per zip code. The methodology assumes if one home or business in a Zip code has a broadband connection, then every home or business in that zip code has broadband.

“No business in its right mind would base decisions on such misleading data — surely the American government should not do so, either,” Copps said.

The FCC proposal also seeks information on U.S. broadband prices, upload and download speeds and price per bit transmitted. In addition, the agency is seeking information on broadband investment trends and the extent of competition among U.S. broadband providers.

Other questions asked in the inquiry include the best way to include broadband data and analysis from state, local and other federal agencies in the FCC’s annual survey of the state of broadband competition.

“If the Commission had prudently invested in better broadband data gathering a decade ago, I believe we would all be better off, not just the government, but more importantly, consumers and industry,” Copps said. “We would also have granular data, reported by carriers, on the range of broadband speeds and prices that consumers in urban, suburban, exurban, rural and tribal areas currently face.”

Whatever the data used, the U.S. will fall short of President Bush’s 2004 call for “universal, affordable access for broadband technology” by the end of this year.

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