One FCC Commissioner Urging Caution On Federally Funded Broadband Expansion

PC Gamer ran an article on Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s comments in a recent blog post over at the FCC’s site concerning expanding broadband access.  The PC Gamer post takes a stance that the FCC is trying to stifle public access to faster broadband.  How awful is it that an FCC commissioner wants to keep the Interwebs out of the hands of people?  Right?  Are ultra-high broadband speeds (1+ gigabits per second) just novelties, or should all Americans have easy access to huge data pipes?

Well, it’s not so simple.  First, “universal service” works (good, bad, or indifferent) when there is a regulated monopoly in place.  The telephone system was monopolized by the old AT&T with the Bell System.  They owned most of the local operating companies, the long distance lines, the manufacturing arm, and had a powerful research and development arm in Bell Laboratories.  The Bell System was a regulated utility until it agreed to be broken up in the early 1980s.  Universal service as codified in the Communications Act of 1934 (and then in the Telecommunications Act of 1996) continued even as competition ramped up mainly because the infrastructure was already in place (yes, I am probably oversimplifying it).

So, why can’t we just mandate that people should have universal service for broadband to access the Internet?  Well, mandating something is a lot easier than implementing.  You may not know this, but there is actually a lot of fiber optic infrastructure that was installed throughout the United States in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  It’s what’s termed as “dark fiber”; fiber that was installed but doesn’t currently carry traffic.  These fiber trunks connect states and regions across the country, but they don’t bring hundreds of megabit or more speeds to residential or industrial areas.  It’s what’s called the “last mile problem”.

Alphabet, Inc., through its Google Fiber business, was leasing these miles of dark fiber to provide high-speed Internet to residential areas and business in select cities including some in Georgia.  Google Fiber is hitting the pause button on rolling out to new cities.  One factor in this decision, according to a Washington Post article, is demand.  Current bandwidth-munching applications, like Netflix and Hulu, only need about 25 megabits per second (Mbps).  That’s a fraction of the 1 gigabits per second (Gbps) that companies like Google Fiber (and EPB in Chattanooga) provide their customers.  Incidentally, the FCC bumped the standard definition of broadband from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps in 2015 to set a floor for applications like high-quality video.

It appears that Commissioner O’Rielly’s comments about ultra-high-speed broadband connections being a “novelty” for most consumers may have been vindicated, but really his comments are more of a caution on throwing federal tax dollars at the problem and favors the private sector to develop ways to expand broadband cost-effectively to most areas.  Don’t worry, there are still subsidies to help cover the cost to provide broadband to citizens where the costs would be too high to make a sound business case.  From Commissioner O’Rielly’s blog:

Despite best efforts to date, consumers in some areas in America do not have sufficient broadband.  In these areas where there is no business case to provide broadband, the law provides the Commission with the responsibility and the duty to take remedial action.  To facilitate this obligation, the Commission operates subsidy programs by which providers are given financial resources obtained via fees from consumers as an incentive to serve less profitable areas.

So, how does this affect Georgia?  Well, it remains to be seen, but it sounds like the FCC won’t be using its subsidy carrot tied to its regulation stick on telcos and cable companies to expand broadband under the Trump Administration.  Rural broadband has been the focus of a number of elected officials, and that’s a really good thing.  My understanding is that two bills will be dropping soon, if they haven’t already, to address the lack of broadband options for rural Georgians (stay tuned for details about those).

Although this doesn’t help current-day issues, the good news is that the standard for 5th generation cell networks (5G) is currently being developed.  A preliminary look at some of the proposed standards includes data speeds of up to and over 1 Gbps and low latency.  The penetration of high-speed network access increases tremendously because it’s a wireless network instead of a more expensive wired network that you see with traditional copper cable and fiber optic lines.  Take a look at the current 4G coverage of the two largest cellular providers, Verizon (red) and (the new) AT&T (orange):

Both carriers cover most of Georgia, and one can make a logical conclusion that 5G networks will cover the same general area as it rolls out during the 2020s.  “Wireless fiber” is something that Google Fiber, as well as other ISPs and mobile carriers, is looking toward as a way to deliver broadband to the last mile.

The United States is a large country geographically, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison of our average broadband speed to smaller countries like South Korea and Japan.  As consumers demand applications that require higher rates of data throughput, I believe you will see more and more companies like Google Fiber, Verizon, AT&T, and even new startups find ways to satisfy the demands of consumers over the coming decades.

There will be a natural expansion of broadband, and we will see speeds start to tick up as new technology allows fast and affordable broadband delivery to residents in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

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