An August report from Free Press, Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America, Broadband Reality Check: The FCC ignores America’s Digital Divide, argues that the official FCC position on broadband is either "wildly optimistic or intentionally misleading."
The standard the FCC uses to measure “high-speed” connections is misleading and low. The 1996 Telecom Act mandates the FCC to ensure deployment of broadband “that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video telecommunications.” However, the standard used by the FCC to measure “high-speed” connections (200 kbps) is barely enough for users to receive low-quality streaming video. It is certainly insufficient for users to originate high-quality video.
The FCC uses a misleading measure of broadband coverage. The Commission counts a
ZIP code as covered by broadband service if it contains at least one broadband subscriber. No consideration is given to the price, speed or availability of connections across the ZIP code.
Broadband costs in the United States remain high, despite growth in the total number
of connections. Meanwhile, the cost of broadband in other countries has dropped
dramatically while speeds have increased. On a per megabit basis, U.S. consumers pay 10
to 25 times more than broadband users in Japan.
The average speed of U.S. broadband connections has seen minimal increase over the
past five years. More than half of DSL lines do not offer capacity of 200 kilobits per
second (kbps) in both directions. Consumers in France and South Korea have residential
broadband connections with speeds 10 to 20 times higher than those in the United States.
Hear Us Now is a project of Consumers Union to advocate for consumer choice in communications services. Similarly, FirstMile.US is "a volunteer-based, nonprofit organization, created to fill the need for collaboration — and action — among industry, federal, state, and local government, community-based organizations, educational and healthcare institutions, and people like you."
In July, Sen. Ensign (R-NV) introduced the Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act (S.1504), "to establish a market driven telecommunications marketplace, to eliminate government managed competition of existing communication service, and to provide parity between functionally equivalent services."
Among the legislative findings:
(1) Since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there have been dramatic changes in the industry, technology, and marketplace requiring Congress to revisit the communications policy of the Nation.
(2) Inter-modal competition is bringing consumers more choice in voice, data, and video service options than ever before.
(3) A new policy framework is required to allow functionally equivalent services to compete fairly.
(4) Silos of regulation based on historical regulatory classifications only invite arbitrage and result in government influenced market distortions.
(5) Such market distortions coupled with lack of regulatory certainty is chilling investment and stalling deployment of broadband networks.
(6) The United States is falling behind the world in broadband penetration and it must encourage investment to regain a leadership position in the world.
(7) Communications networks are global in nature and the United States must eliminate barriers for domestic communications providers to compete in the global marketplace.
In a July op-ed in Network World, Scott Bradner thinks that the FCC's definition of broadband as 200K bit/second is not competitive with broadband services in the rest of the world: Continuing deceptions. If that definition is behind the times, then this bill's definition of broadband is a bit antique for 2005:
(2) BROADBAND COMMUNICATIONS SERVICE- The term `broadband communications service' means a communications service enabling the transmission of communications at a capacity greater than 64 kilobits per second.
64 kilobits per second qualifies broadband? Why not just redfine it as 56 kilobits per second, so that most of America now has "broadband"?
This bill does include an open-access requirement, but does not impose common carrier obligations on broadband providers:
SEC. 7. CONSUMER ACCESS TO CONTENT AND APPLICATIONS.
(1) IN GENERAL- A consumer may not be denied access to any content provided over facilities used to provide broadband communications service and a broadband service provider shall not willfully and knowingly block access to such content by a subscriber, unless--
(A) such content is determined to be illegal;
(B) such denial is expressly authorized by Federal or State law; or
(C) such access is inconsistent with the terms of the service plan of such consumer including applicable bandwidth capacity or quality of service constraints.
(2) CUSTOMIZED CONTENT- A broadband communications service provider may offer to a consumer a customized plan developed through such service providers network or commercial arrangements with providers of content, applications, and other service components to differentiate--
(A) access to content;
(B) the availability of applications; and
(C) the character of service components available.
(3) NON-CUSTOMIZED CONTENT- Nothing in subsection (a) shall adversely affect the performance of non-customized consumer access to content, services, and applications offered by the competitors of a broadband service provider.
(b) Enforcement of Access Violations-
(1) IN GENERAL- The Commission may take such enforcement action as it may prescribe by rule, if the Commission determines that a broadband communications service provider intentionally restricted access to any content described in subsection (a)(1).
(2) EXCEPTION- A broadband communications service provider may not be in violation of subsection (a), if such service provider does not interrupt or block access to any content described in subsection (a)(1) when--
(A) performing network--
(i) optimization or management;
(ii) security; or
(B) performing other measures to ensure network security and integrity; or
(C) attempting to prevent unlawful conduct.
(c) Parental Controls- Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit--
(1) any communications service provider from offering a service that allows a consumer to block display of programs with a common rating; and
(2) a provider of mobile services from offering or providing access only to a family friendly service to a subscriber.
(d) Connectivity of Devices- Except as provided in this section, a broadband service provider shall not prevent any person from utilizing equipment and devices in connection with lawful content or applications.
(e) Access to VoIP Applications- Nothing in subsection (a) shall permit a broadband service provider to prevent a customer from using voice over Internet Protocol applications offered by a competitor.
Susan Crawford: Telecom Draft: "As far as I can tell, the draft bill has the effect of removing traditional common carriage elements for telephone companies (required interconnection, tariffed rates), but keeping in place other requirements that will apply to everyone (telecommunications providers and applications alike). The bill foreshadows a telecom-mindset internet, in which the default setting is "everything not permitted is prohibited" -- rather than the other way around."
The most controversial part of this bill may be that it preempts states and municipalities from competing with the private sector in deploying communications services:
SEC. 15. MUNICIPALLY OWNED NETWORKS.
(a) Protection Against Undue Government Competition With Private Sector- Any State or local government seeking to provide communications service shall--
(1) provide conspicuous notice of the proposed scope of the communications service to be provided, including--
(B) services to be provided;
(C) coverage area;
(D) terms; and
(E) architecture; and
(2) give a detailed accounting of all proposed accommodations that such government owned communications service would enjoy, including--
(A) any free or below cost rights-of-way;
(B) any beneficial or preferential tax treatment;
(C) bonds, grants, or other source of funding unavailable to non-governmental entities; and
(D) land, space in buildings, or other considerations.
(b) Open Bids Must Be Made Available for Non-Governmental Entities- Not later than 90 days after posting of the notice required under subsection (a)(1), a non-governmental entity shall have the option of participating in an open bidding process conducted by a neutral third party to provide such communications service on the same terms, conditions, financing, rights-of- way, land, space, and accommodations as secured by the State or local government.
(c) Preference for Non-Governmental Entities- In the event of identical bids under subsection (b), the neutral third party conducting the bidding process shall give preference to a non-governmental entity.
(d) Open Access to Non-Governmental Entities- If a State or local government wins the bid under subsection (b), a non-governmental entity shall have the ability to place facilities in the same conduit, trenches, and locations as the State or local government for concurrent or future use under the same conditions secured by the State or local government.
(e) Grandfather Clause- A State or local government providing communications service as of the date of enactment of this Act shall be exempt from this section, unless such State or local government--
(1) substantially enters into new lines of business; or
(2) substantially expands it communications service beyond its current service area, as such service area existed upon the date of enactment of this Act.
Municipal wireless broadband projects are underway in a number of cities, because access to information provides substantial measurable public benefits. The public interest is served when more people have more access to information.
In the NY Times, Thomas Friendman notes that this is a matter of competitiveness in the global economy: Calling All Luddites: "The fact that the U.S. has fallen to 16th in the world in broadband connectivity aroused no interest. Look, I don't even like cellphones, but this is not about gadgets. The world is moving to an Internet-based platform for commerce, education, innovation and entertainment. Wealth and productivity will go to those countries or companies that get more of their innovators, educators, students, workers and suppliers connected to this platform via computers, phones and P.D.A.'s."
National Journal, Drew Clark takes an indepth look at the policy debates over Municipal Broadband.
Here in New York, Andrew Rasiej, a candidate for Public Advocate, is basing his campaign around advocating for the need to unwire NYC with municipal broadband WiFi: The Rasiej Plan to Wi-Fi NY: "for 1/4 what the Mayor wanted to spend in taxpayer money on a football stadium in Manhattan, we can ensure that everyone can get highspeed access to the Internet whenever and wherever they need it."
Rasiej blogged at TPM Cafe about the value of access to information: Information is Power and the inability of the marketplace to serve the public interest. Can You Gouge Me Now?: "The fact is, cheap, wireless technology can provide high speed Internet access to New York City residents for $20 a month, or less. The world's leading municipal Wi-Fi consultants and technology experts have developed a citywide Wi-Fi plan for Philadelphia that will provide this service for $16 to $20 a month, with subsidies for the poor. And they're implementing it now."
By providing this access, which is both cheaper and more widely available than broadband from traditional telecom providers, cities can stimulate development in information industries.
Municipalities are not the only non-traditional providers that may get into the broadband game. In Business 2.0, Om Malik speculates that Google might benefit by building out its own national broadband network with "dark" fiber, bargain-priced high-bandwidth capacity and Wi-Fi: Free Wi-Fi? Get Ready for GoogleNet.
Any new broadband bill should encourage the development of innovative, higher-speed and lower-cost alternatives to cable or telephone company broadband, rather than discourage such alternatives. The bill should look to the bandwidth and prices available in competing countries to make the US a leader, rather than a follower in broadband.