FCC should look to thousands of stimulus applications to define broadband

As part of the FCC's efforts to develop a national broadband policy, to be submitted to Congress in February, the commission has solicited input into what the definition of broadband should be. Not surprisingly, the country's largest broadband providers--AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, to name a few--argue that the FCC shouldn't change its definition of broadband at all, which seems like broadband Stone Age to many.

The FCC's current definition of broadband is a minimum of 768 kbps downstream and 200 kbps upstream to end users. These definitions were used to define speeds in broadband stimulus funding programs by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) and Rural Utilities Service (RUS). Their reasoning was that the FCC has already utilized that standard because it is the most "technology-neutral option."

Of course, consumer advocacy groups continue to scoff at that definition. Free Press thinks broadband should be defined as a minimum of 5 Mbps upstream and downstream, saying broadband providers are self-serving to ask for the status quo. But at least Verizon Communications has a good argument: "It would be disruptive and introduce confusion if the commission were to now create a new and different definition," now that stimulus money is tied to the minimal speeds.

That's why many consumer advocates protested the NTIA's and RUS's broadband definition based on these minimal speeds in the first place. They knew the broadband plan would likely be based on how these agencies define broadband. Unfortunately, in an effort to get stimulus funds out the door, I believe NTIA and RUS didn't have the time to take a thoughtful approach to this. It could become a hamster wheel.

However, I'm optimistic. Out of the 2,200 applications asking for nearly $28 billion in funds from the NTIA and RUS, I will be very surprised to find any that propose these minimum data speeds. That's because applicants that proposed to deploy faster speeds are given preference over those choosing to deploy services with the minimum speed. The theory is that enough companies will compete with one another so that the fastest technology that is economically feasible will prevail. And there are a lot of competitors, and likely even more so in the subsequent funding rounds.

I would hope that the FCC itself should root through the thousands of applications to find out exactly what applicants are proposing. They could get a good picture of what speeds are economically viable in some of the most hard-to-reach areas.--Lynnette

P.S. Due to the Labor Day holiday Monday,  FierceBroadbandWireless won't be publishing that day. Look for the issue on Tuesday.