FCC cites knowledge gaps in estimating mobile broadband availability

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The FCC acknowledges that it doesn't know what it doesn't know when it comes to estimating mobile broadband availability in the United States.

According to the commission's Eighth Broadband Progress Report, 19 million Americans, or 6 percent of the population, lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds targeted by regulators. In rural areas nearly one-fourth of the population lacks access, while in tribal areas nearly one-third of the population lacks access. Moreover, where broadband is available some 100 million residents opt to not subscribe, "citing barriers such as lack of affordability, lack of digital literacy, and a perception that the Internet is not relevant or useful to them," said the commission.

On the wireless front, the commission touted the "world leading" LTE deployments by U.S. operators. "In the summer of 2010, there was no LTE deployment in the United States. Just 18 months later, in January 2012, three mobile wireless providers had launched LTE networks," the report said.

The FCC added that its Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is preparing for a broadband incentive auction--scheduled for September 27--that will award one-time support to carriers that commit to provide 3G or better mobile voice and broadband services to unserved road miles across the country. "We are optimistic that as this implementation proceeds, broadband will increasingly be available to all Americans," said the commission.

According to State Broadband Initiative data, as of June 30, 2011, 19.7 million people--or 6.2 percent of the population--lacked access to mobile data networks offering data service at the 3 Mbps/768 kbps speed benchmark, while 104.5 million--or 33 percent--could not get mobile service delivering 6 Mbps/1.6 Mbps.

However, the FCC said that the SBI data could be misleading because it does not distinguish between the older CDMA EV-DO/EV-DO Rev A and WCDMA/HSPA technologies and more recently deployed LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+ technologies. Because the reported figures do not differentiate areas covered by older technologies within the coverage areas served by mobile wireless data networks reported at 3 Mbps/768 kbps or more, the FCC is concerned that the SBI data overstates the deployment of wireless broadband networks meeting the speed benchmark.

Another data source, Mosaik, suggests that the number of Americans unserved by mobile broadband services at the 3 Mbps/768 kbps speed benchmark ranges from 94 million to more than 150 million, depending upon whether HSPA+ technology is excluded or included in the analysis. "In general, because many carriers report that the previously-deployed mobile technologies--including CDMA EV-DO/EV-DO Rev A or WCDMA/HSPA--are capable of meeting the speed benchmark in the SBI data, our estimates of Americans without access to broadband are greater with the Mosaik data than with the SBI data," said the FCC.

"The Mosaik Data excluding HSPA+ may also overstate the number of unserved as compared to the Mosaik Data including HSPA+," the commission added.

Another problem with the Mosaik data is that although it distinguishes coverage by particular mobile wireless network technologies, including LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+, "these technologies may not meet the benchmark depending on the version of the technology deployed, the configuration of the network, the amount of spectrum used, and the type of backhaul connection to the cell site," said the FCC, adding, "This is particularly true of certain HSPA+ deployments."

For more:
- see this FCC webpage
- see this SmartPlanet article

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