How bad is U.S. broadband deployment?

FCC finally being told to produce useful information

It looks like we'll finally get useful info about where the U.S. stands on broadband Internet deployment now that Congress is forcing the FCC's hand.

Congress has passed — and the president has signed — the Broadband Data Improvement Act. It may now be possible to get some useful information about where the United States sits in the world when it comes to the deployment and adoption of broadband Internet services. If this turns out to be the case, it will be the first time we would have any real idea.

For reasons best known to itself, the FCC has for years adamantly refused to collect the data necessary to understand the true state of the deployment of broadband Internet service in the United States. Earlier this year the FCC, under the threat that Congress would order it to change its ways, did say it would collect better data in the future."FCC: Consistent to a fault, but there is a (small) hope".) Even with the somewhat better data there was no good reason to think that the FCC would produce more useful statistics, considering its track record. Now Congress has acted and there is some additional reason to hope.

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The recently adopted law is aimed at improving "the quality of Federal and State data regarding the availability and quality of broadband services and to promote the deployment of affordable broadband services to all parts of the Nation."

The law mandates some useful ways to attain the first goal but does not do anything useful towards the second other than enable regulators to shame broadband service providers that are not doing a good job.

The law requires the FCC to compile a list of poorly served parts of the country. I guess this is so carriers in those areas can be publicly chastised for their poor behavior.

The law also requires that the FCC figure out how U.S. broadband deployment compares with that in other countries in a systematic, apples-to-apples way. The results of this study will be useful at least to the degree that they may devolve a consistent agreement as to where this country sits. I've seen rankings that vary between No. 8 and 20 in the world -- the number seems to heavily depend on the goals of the person quoting it.

The law also requires the FCC to figure out if it would be useful to collect data on the actual speed that customers are getting rather than the fantasy numbers provided by carriers. If feasible to obtain, this value could force truth in advertising -- such a concept!

The law also sets up a somewhat fuzzy grant program that would provide funds for broadband development -- whatever that means. And, as is rather common these days, the law tries to promote a "safe Internet for children." But, unlike past efforts that mandate the technically impossible (such as requiring senders to ensure that naughty words never reach the eyes of children as the Communications Decency Act tried to do), this bill mostly relies on education and development of better filtering technology for parents to use. The law does suggest that having ISPs spy on their customers and record their activities would protect kids -- but it does not do so all that strongly.

As with most congressional work these days, this bill is a mixed bag, but at least it's only 10 pages long and does not seem to contain any earmarks. Congress could have, and commonly does, much worse.

Disclaimer: Not everyone at Harvard is terse, nor does everyone at Harvard get things exactly right but, when something is wrong it's not because someone is running for reelection. In any case, I know of no university opinion on this law, so it must be my own.

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