FCC: Consistent to a fault, but there is a (small) hope

FCC’s annual misrepresentation of U.S. broadband deployment status may change in the future

The FCC has put out a worse-than-useless report on the status of broadband deployment in the United States. I know this is far from news, since it seems to be the only kind of report on this topic that the FCC knows how to produce, but there may be reason to hope that next time will be somewhat different. The FCC is, for the first time, proposing to ask for potentially useful information in the future.

The FCC seems to be acting just in front of being told to do so by Congress (See "FCC may be told to tell truth"). But for whatever reason, the FCC proposed on March 19 to change the data it requests from companies selling better than dialup Internet connections. This would include almost enough information to do useful research on it and to see where the United States stands in this space.

This proposal for future data collection did not help make the current report remotely useful. Based on the commissioners' statements, the new report is as aggressively misleading as the previous editions. (See "Reading into the FCC’s 'Net access stats" and "Continuing deceptions"). (I have not seen the report itself, as the publishing of such reports often lags from when they are approved.) By using a far too slow data rate as its threshold (200Kbps in at least one direction) and checking for any service in a Zip code, the FCC has ensured that the report will produce no useful information about actual competition in a particular location for high-speed service. It also will mislead readers about actual availability of real high-speed Internet service -- you know, the kind of service that would support VoIP, videoconferencing, content uploading or even movie downloads.

Naturally, even though the data is useless, the FCC proceeded to trumpet the success of high-speed deployment in the United States under its watch. The people at the FCC are smarter than that. (Even if they were not, the repeated blows on the validity of the analysis would have gotten through by now.) So there must be some other reason for the FCC to continue to follow the path it has. I can only guess that the FCC does not want to be clear that it has done nothing useful to get the United States on par with other industrialized countries. See the statement of Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein on the report for some unpleasant realities about the relative status of the United States.

For example, less than a week after the FCC action, the Associated Press reported that due to actual competition the prices for Internet service in much of Europe was dropping while speeds were up. This is at a time when prices for U.S. Internet service have generally gone up with no real change in speeds.

The more-detailed data the FCC will ask for in the future, including what upload and download speeds are offered (but see "Truth in speeds - broadband access" for a warning in this area) as well as more detailed customer locations, will enable a far better analysis of the current state of noncompetition (or at best, duopoly) in most of the United States. One big issue with the current proposal is easily fixed and was noted by Commissioner Michael Copps -- the FCC does not propose to differentiate between commercial and residential services, and that will badly distort the resulting data.

In the future, the FCC will have the data needed to create a very useful report. It would take a determined effort for the commission to mess it up next time. Sadly, the FCC might feel it necessary to undertake that effort.

Disclaimer: I've not seen Harvard undertake extra effort to produce useless reports from good data. The worry above is mine and not based on university experience.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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