More on the FCC's "Broadband Funding Gap" and Universal Service

by on May 19, 2010 · 1 comment

Back on St. Paddy’s Day, I offered a few comments on the “funding gap” identified in the FCC’s just-released national broadband plan. Since then, the FCC has put out a notice of proposed rulemaking and notice of inquiry seeking public comment on reforms that would allow its universal service fund to subsidize broadband. The FCC has also released a 137-page technical paper that details how the staff calculated the broadband “availability gap” and funding gap.

So, now there’s more to chew on, and another round of online mastication would be timely given the open FCC proceeding.  Here are three big issues:

1. Definition of broadband

The plan announced a goal of making broadband with actual download speeds of 4 mbps available to all Americans.  In the plan, this goal appeared to be based on the actual average speed of broadband service (4 mbps), even though the median speed is just 3.1 mbps (p. 21). The technical paper, however, also projects that, based on past growth rates in broadband speed, “the median will likely be higher than 4 mbps by the end of 2010.” (p. 43)  Contrary to what I thought back in March, it appears the FCC is justifying the 4 mbps goal based on the median speed, not the average. 

The technical report also argues that 4 mbps is necessary to run high-speed video, which a “growing portion of subscribers” (not including me) apparently use. (p. 43) So, if the broadband plan achieves its goals, every Amercian will have the opportunity to subscribe to Internet access capable of delivering high-quality porn! Fortunately, the technical report uses a different and more productive example — streamed classroom lectures. 

Reasonable people could still question whether the median is the appropriate benchmark to guide government actions intended to equalize broadband access opportunities.  The technical report includes a helpful graphic that shows the most common broadband speed users actually buy is 2 mbps, and 38 percent of all subscribers have speeds of 2 mbps or less. (p. 43) The FCC staff’s model calculates that if the goal were set at 1.5 mbps, the number of “unserved” households would fall from 7 million to 6.3 million, and the required subsidy would fall from $18.6 billion to $15.3 billion. (p. 45) 

If almost half of broadband subscribers have decided that something less than 4 mbps is perfectly adequate, that suggests 4 mbps may go far beyond what is necessary to ensure that all Americans have access to basic broadband service. So, that 4 mbps goal is still questionable.

2. Omission of 3G wireless

The 4 mbps goal allowed the FCC to ignore third generation wireless when it estimated the “availability gap.” The technical paper shows that 95 percent of households have 4 mbps broadband available. About 3 percent of households have no broadband available, while 2 percent have broadband available at speeds ranging from 384 kbps – 3 mbps. (p. 17)  That 2 percent probably includes households with slow DSL and 3G wireless.

The technical paper also revealed that it did not include service from fixed Wireless Internet Service Providers due to data availability. (p. 25) These serve 2 million subscribers in rural areas (p. 66), so the omission potentially accounts for a large chunk of the households considered “unserved.” No telling how many, since apparently the data aren’t available.

Back in March, I guesstimated that the 7 million household “availability gap” might overstate the size of the problem by more than half, simply because 3G wireless is available to 98 percent of American households. Looks like my guesstimate is pretty much in line with the more detailed figures in the FCC technical paper.

 3. Role of satellite

The broadband plan did not count satellite broadband when assessing availability. The technical paper (pp. 89-94)provides a much more detailed explanation of the capacity constraints the FCC staff believes will prevent satellite broadband from serving more than a couple million subscribers.   (The current satellite subscriber base is approximately 900,000.)

The technical paper pointed out that satellites are expensive and take three years to build. (p. 92) To put the time frame in perspective, that’s about as long as the FCC and the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service have been discussing universal service subsidies for broadband. Lord knows we shouldn’t make consumers wait that long!

There is, however, something a little asymmetrical about the way the FCC staff treated satellite and other forms of broadband. The point of estimating the broadband availability gap was to determine how much of a subsidy would be required to induce the private sector to build the infrastructure to close the gap. But while the study assumed that the subsidies would call forth the requisite cable, DSL, and wireless infrastructure within some unnamed but acceptable time frame, it decided that three years is just too long to wait for satellite infrastructure to expand. So, satellite plays a minimal role in the FCC’s plan.

Yet even this minimal role has a big impact. To its credit, the technical paper calculated how satellite broadband could dramatically slash the cost of serving the most expensive 250,000 homes. It estimated (pp. 91-92) that the net present value of subsidies required to serve these homes with satellite would range between $800 million and $2 billion — compared to a $13.4 billion subsidy required to serve these homes with terrestrial broadband. (This implies an annual subsidy of $105-255 million, which is pretty close to my March 17 guesstimate of $100-200 million.)

So, satellite broadband could help prevent costs from skyrocketing, even assuming it plays only the limited role envisioned in the FCC staff’s analysis.

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