After a decade of bad policy based on even worse data...
As we've complained about for years, the FCC has traditionally made broadband policy decisions based on flawed and incomplete data. Part of the 1996 Telecom Act required that the agency release quarterly reports on the status of broadband deployment. Unfortunately for consumers, that data has always been essentially useless -- with the FCC declaring any zip code that has just one served broadband customer
in it to be "wired" for service. This flawed methodology has dictated FCC policy for years.
The FCC has used this "evidence" of healthy broadband infrastructure to support deregulatory policies lobbied for by the nation's largest carriers, who obviously don't want government intervention mucking with revenues. With new boss Julius Genachowski at the helm, the FCC has been promising that they're going to start actually making decisions based on data
The FCC had already decided to use more accurate census-level zip code data for broadband penetration measurement. But with Genachowski in charge, the agency is also going to employ Harvard's independent and objective Berkman Center to start confirming the accuracy of broadband penetration data.
But before any of that happens, the FCC had one more report to issue that made use of the agency's completely useless zip code reporting methodology. That latest report
(pdf), which includes data current as of June 2008, continues the scientifically challenged mindset that's plagued the FCC for a decade, and maintains the painfully low bar for defining broadband connections (anything faster than 200kbps).
"The FCC and others have recognized these requirements as insufficiently granular or precise to inform necessary policymaking."
-The FCC, in what may be the understatement of the decade
Using the FCC's completely useless reporting methodology, you'll be happy to note that the United States achieved universal broadband penetration as of June, 2008
. The last report of its kind proudly proclaims that not only do 100% of zip codes have access to at least one provider, but roughly 95% of zip codes have access to four or more ISPs
. Mission accomplished, eh telecom lobbyists?
The FCC itself has admitted the uselessness of their previous data collection for some time. "The FCC and others have recognized these requirements as insufficiently granular or precise to inform necessary policymaking," the FCC stated in a press release
. Of course that awareness came after a decade of sweeping policy changes that resulted in American consumers paying more money for less bandwidth
than more than a dozen developed countries.
While government dysfunction can be blamed for some of the FCC's oversight, incumbent lobbyist control of government is the primary culprit responsible for our science-related dysfunction. Shiny, happy data means no need for government intervention, considered the apex of evil for telecom lobbyists and "free marketeers" everywhere. And while a decade of these anti-regulatory policies have resulted in higher revenues and explosive growth for carriers, consumers enjoy less competition, fewer consumer protections, and extremely limited choice.
In the more nuanced light of the real world, regulation is neither wholly evil or wholly good. There is a balance to be struck between sound regulation and "free market" capitalism. Each attempt at government regulation requires debate on its specific merits. That's particularly true as the government finally catches up to its international counterparts and begins crafting a national broadband plan. But without sound data, that debate cannot occur to any degree of usefulness -- and hasn't for more than a decade in the telecom sector.
While the FCC's decision to scrap form 477 data reporting certainly is only just the first step in reforming the very broken FCC, it's certainly a welcome one. Hopefully this week saw the last FCC broadband progress report based on little more than fluff and nonsense. Here's to hoping that future policy decisions, good or bad, at least lay on a solid bedrock of science and data -- instead of shiny baubles, lobbyist influence and junk science.