By Christopher Terry
November 18th, 2020 marked 3900 days since the Federal Communications Commission launched its heavily-hyped “National Broadband Plan.” 400 days ago, I penned an op-ed for the Benton Foundation which assessed how the FCC had been unable to achieve any of the benchmarks or meet any of the six stated goals of the plan. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that another year didn’t fix very much of the shortcomings I identified then.
Nominally, the U.S. National Broadband Plan was designed to run for 10 years. The mandates expired, unfulfilled, back in mid-March, just as the Covid-19 Pandemic was beginning. Now, eight months later, concerns over the digital divide have only grown louder, while the FCC commissioners crow about statistics on broadband deployment and hand out additional subsidies for telehealth.
While the National Broadband’s Plan included a goal for universal access, (Goal 3: “Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.”) the FCC employs creative math to cover up the fact that 10 years of broadband policy has been a colossal failure.
As 2020 has unfolded, the agency continues to tout anecdotal successes in broadband “growth” using measurements of the subsidies being handed out to connect homes left behind by the FCC’s economic centric theories of regulatory implementation. Just over a month ago, Commissioner Carr went on the road to tout a subsidy for rural broadband in Pennsylvania to the tune of $690 Million dollars:
I’ll be in Harrisburg & central PA tomorrow to discuss the @FCC’s work to accelerate the buildout of high-speed Internet.
This month alone, we kick off a $690 million initiative to bring service to ~190,000 more homes & small biz that had been left behind. pic.twitter.com/LPtFRTok6V
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) October 19, 2020
While anything that actually solves the gaps in broadband coverage that have resulted from the FCC’s negligent policy approach over the last decade is good, and even setting aside the potentially partisan electoral implications of handing out this subsidy in a critical battleground state just weeks before the Presidential election, the lack of scrutiny given to these routine subsidy announcements can be found in the cost. In this recent example, $690 Million to hook up 190 thousand new customers breaks down to a real bargain, at a mere cost of $3631 per household.
At that inflated price point, a subsidy to connect the roughly 125 Million homes in the country to broadband would have cost a bit North of $4.5 trillion.
Yet, even in the face of these targeted subsidies, we continue to see a large gap in access to broadband in many places in the U.S. Despite the fact the FCC adopted a slower broadband speed definition of 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream, when it was clear the 100 Mbps downstream, 50 Mbps upstream target for 100 Million Homes in the National Broadband Plan could not be met. So not only has the FCC missed it targets for access, it even had to reduce what counted as access to get to the numbers it is now routinely writing press releases about.
To be fair, the FCC is correct when it says that the fact that only 14.5 Million people remain without access to broadband is an improvement (though third party organizations estimate this is a massive underestimate), but that’s like a football team who is being shut-out while down by four touchdowns late in the game takes time to celebrate that meaningless field goal they just kicked. It is an improvement, sure, but nowhere close to getting the job done, and frankly on broadband deployment we should be well past the end of the game.
While we can debate metrics when assessing successes and failures of the FCC’s policymaking, the events of the last eight months have put a spotlight on how important the FCC’s failure to achieve its goals has been. As millions of Americans were forced to go virtual for work and school the clear requirement for affordable universal broadband access has never been clearer.
Gaps in coverage and the cost of broadband have put kids in parking lots outside of fast food places so they can do their school work on open Wi-Fi because the availability of broadband in an area does not guarantee one’s actually ability to access it. Broadband is expensive, and even in the areas where broadband is widely available, people suffering the economic strains of the last eight months may not have the resources to have broadband at home. So, at the same time we’re handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to cover up a problem that was supposed to be fixed already, we’re leaving even more people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Unfortunately, the current leadership of the FCC seems more interested in trying to invent ways to regulate internet speech that they object to.
With the indications that COVID-19 is going to be sticking around like an unwanted houseguest, the new incoming leadership at the FCC has to redouble the efforts to cover the gaps in the broadband maps. Universal access to broadband was not an unreasonable goal, and the FCC has had more than 10 years to make it happen. Kids on the wrong side of the divide have found ways to get their homework in on time, maybe we should hold the FCC to the same standard?
Christopher Terry spent 15 years as a producer in broadcast radio and six years as a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before becoming an assistant professor of Media Law at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His research includes policy, regulatory and legal analysis of media ownership, media content and political advertising.