In a report set to be released as early as Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission says broadband is not being made available to all Americans in "a reasonable and timely fashion." Although the report is the FCC's sixth look at the state of broadband since Congress mandated in 1996 that it start tracking high-speed Internet connections, it marks the first time that the agency has concluded the market is not working in all corners of the country.
The FCC's national broadband plan, released in March, found that between 14 million and 24 million Americans do not have access to broadband. The plan, mandated by last year's stimulus bill , lays out a roadmap for bringing high-speed connections to all Americans.
Two of its top recommendations include tapping the federal fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural communities to pay for high-speed Internet connections and unleashing more spectrum for wireless Internet services, particularly in rural areas where it does not make economic sense for phone and cable companies to build landline networks.
Rick Kaplan, chief counsel to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, said the findings of the FCC's latest broadband report underscore the need to push ahead with those two proposals. He added that the agency is not seeking to impose heavy-handed new rules - such as line-sharing requirements - on the phone and cable companies that provide most Internet connections in the U.S.
Still, word of the upcoming FCC report raised concerns among telecommunications companies, which fear it could lead to more regulation. The industry has mounted an intense lobbying campaign to derail a proposal by Genachowski to define broadband access as a telecommunications service subject to "common carrier" obligations to treat all traffic equally. The proposal is a response to a recent federal appeals court ruling that cast doubt on the agency's authority over broadband under its existing regulatory framework.
USTelecom, which represents the big phone companies, said in a statement Monday that the FCC's latest analysis "strains credulity" since the national broadband plan found that the number of Americans with broadband at home grew to nearly 200 million last year from 8 million in 2000.
Kaplan said that while the industry is doing a good job of expanding broadband, it is not reaching all Americans. Stressing that the FCC is required by Congress to examine the state of the U.S. broadband market, he added that there is no way for the agency to conclude that every American currently has access.
The FCC has changed the way it tracks broadband in its latest report. The agency lifted the speed requirement for a service to qualify as broadband to at least four megabits downstream - far faster than its previous 200-kilobit standard. It also measured broadband availability in far smaller geographic areas. The agency had been widely criticized for tracking broadband availability only by zip code and counting an entire zip code as served even if only one household could get access.