Why is the FCC Looking Backwards on Broadband?

The tech sector is one of the most forward looking, fastest growing, and innovative industries. It represents one-sixth of our economy and investment is going nowhere but up. But today’s Federal Commissions Commission (FCC) report on the progress of broadband adoption makes one wonder how the industry flourishes despite being regulated by one of the most mind-bogglingly backward looking and pro-regulatory agencies in government.

The FCC has determined – for the third year in a row – that broadband “is not yet being deployed ‘to all Americans’ in a reasonable and timely fashion.” The Commission’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report (known as Section 706) found that 19 million Americans – 6 percent of the population – lack sufficient broadband, which they define as 4 Mbps. But not only does this finding completely fail to account for all types of broadband, there is good reason to believe it is consistently made to justify the Commission’s regulatory agenda.

Only a slight amount of digging reveals the Commission’s most glaringly absurd decision: they deliberately ignored wireless and mobile broadband service. When taking mobile broadband into account, the number of Americans without broadband drops from 19 million to 5.5 million – a mere 1.7 percent of the population. This is made even worse by the fact that the law authorizing the report requires the Commission to consider broadband “using any technology” – as newly appointed Commissioner Ajit Pai was quick to point out.

The Commission’s failure to account for mobile broadband service is not only disingenuous, but completely backward looking. According to Cisco’s Mobile Data Traffic Forecast, global mobile data traffic “more than doubled for the fourth year in a row” and mobile speeds grew 66 percent last year. The number of mobile broadband devices is poised to exceed the entire world’s population this year. And in the U.S., over 80 percent of Americans have access to at least three mobile broadband providers.

So if mobile is the future, why does the FCC ignore it? As Commissioners Rob McDowell and Ajit Pai – both of whom rightly dissented from the report – point out: the Section 706 report has consistently been used to justify further regulatory action. It’s already been referenced to justify the FCC's Net Neutrality regulations and multiple subsidy programs. And just as the Commission ignored the law’s direction in crafting this report by omitting wireless, they’ve ignored that Section 706 directs them to spur broadband investment through deregulatory actions, including “regulatory forbearance” and “removing barriers to infrastructure investment” – not new regulations.

Despite the conclusion, the Commission goes to great lengths in their report to praise broadband providers for investing tens of billions of dollars annually into improving access and speeds – over $1 trillion over the past 15 years. In 2003, 15 percent of Americans had broadband. Thanks to this investment, today – less than a decade later – 98.2 percent of Americans have broadband. No matter what the FCC says, that’s objectively a great amount of progress in a reasonable and timely fashion.

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