A Speed Bump on the Road to Universal Broadband?

by on July 7, 2010 · 0 comments

The Federal Communications Commission has an open proceeding in which it seeks advice on how to repurpose universal service subsidies for phone service in high cost areas to subsidize broadband instead. The FCC apparently wants to subsidize broadband with a minimum download speed of 4 megabytes per second (mbps) and upload speed of 1 mbps. These are the goals proposed in the commission’s National Broadband Plan.

I’m no lawyer, but I wonder if the FCC can do this legally. Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 lays out criteria the FCC is supposed to consider when it decides whether to provide universal service subsidies for new services in addition to phone service. One of the criteria is that the new service must be subscribed to by a “substantial majority” of residential consumers.

Sixty-five percent of Americans have broadband at home. (National Broadband Plan, p. 167)  But a minority of residential customers subscribe to broadband that meets the FCC’s 4 mbps/1 mbps definition. According to the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative technical report on the “Availability Gap” (p. 43), 48 million subscribers have download speeds of 4 mbps or higher. More subscribers – 53 million – have broadband download speeds of 3 mbps or lower. And 35 percent of Americans have no broadband at all. These figures imply that a “substantial majority” of Americans have not subscribed to broadband that meets the National Broadband Plan’s proposed definition.

Based on figures in the technical report, I calculated that approximately 59 percent of Americans subscribe to broadband with a download speed of 768 kbps or higher. Perhaps this figure qualifies as a “substantial majority,” but surely the 4 mbps/1 mbps definition does not.

A reasonable person might also question whether even 59 percent counts as a “substantial majority” for the purpose of declaring broadband a service eligible for subsidy. Surely Section 254 requires a “substantial majority” in part to ensure that consumers who have chosen not to subscribe to a service do not bear the injustice of having to subsidize the provision of that service to others. It is clear from the FCC’s figures that most of the 35 percent of American households without broadband have it available but choose not to subscribe. Therefore, subsidizing even 768 kbps broadband would force many consumers to pay universal service assessments to provide others with a subsidized service that they themselves have decided is not worth the cost.

Wait and see how the FCC addresses this issue once it starts creating a universal service program for broadband.

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