Saturday, June 14, 2008

USA - counting broadband

FCC Orders Revamped Broadband Data

Exactly how many residences are connected to broadband service in the United States? Not sure? Neither is the federal government.

In an effort to improve its broadband data collection, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced Thursday night that Internet service providers will have to start providing the agency with data on the percentage of their subscribers who are residential clients based on census tract areas.

Wired, terrestrial fixed wireless, and satellite broadband service providers already provide data on broadband subscribers, but do not break that information out into residential vs. business. They also report the data based on ZIP codes rather than census tract, which can provide a more granular look at a geographic location. ZIP codes are used purely for mailing purposes, can overlap, and often do not give an accurate description of a geographic area.

Providers will also be required to break out their data based on tiers of service to which their customers subscribe: first Generation data -- 200k up to 768k; basic broadband -- 768k to 1.5mbps; 1.5mbps to 3.0mbps; 3.0mbps to 6.0 mbps; and 6.0mbps and above.

The FCC has taken some heat for not having an updated definition of broadband service, which is currently defined as 200 kilobits per second.

Providers will also be required to report download and upload transfer rates.

Mobile wireless broadband providers only report data on the state level, but under the new order they will have to provide the number of subscribers whose data plans allow them to browse the Internet.

Data is due to the FCC on March 1 and September 1 of each year.

Increasing broadband penetration rates in the United States has long been a goal of the commission and Congress, but the lack of available data makes it difficult to know exactly what regions are most underserved.

"Our current efforts are woefully out-of-date and out-of-whack," Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said during a September congressional hearing.

Current FCC broadband maps are "a disgrace," Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said at the same hearing.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill last July that would require more stringent broadband data collection, but it has not yet seen any additional action.

The FCC approved a similar order in March, but did not require providers to distinguish between residential and business customers at that time.

"I'm pleased that the commission has reconsidered its position and will now require that the data provided identify the extent to which the broadband service is residential rather than business," Copps said in a Thursday statement.

Small ISPs who think this is too much work? Tough, said the FCC.

"We conclude that any incremental burden associated with providing this information on the Census tract basis is outweighed by the utility of the data we will obtain," according to the order.

Interest group Free Press applauded the move. "This is one of those rare instances where reason, logic and the desire to act in the public interest triumphed over the narrow special interests of big business," S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, said in a statement.

Free Press was not as enthused by the FCC's annual report on the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability in the United States that was released the same day. Perhaps paradoxically, the report found that advanced telecom services are "being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion."

"This report is completely divorced from reality," Turner said in a separate statement.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin acknowledged that "there is certainly more work to be done" on broadband penetration, but noted that the number of high-speed broadband lines have increased from 9 million lines to over 100 million lines since he joined the FCC in 2001.

"I think we can get there but we're going to have to do more than just issue self-satisfied reports and set high-minded goals," Copps warned.

Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell highlighted the strides the U.S. has made in broadband deployment, but said he would look forward to reviewing the more accurate data that will become available under the new reporting requirements.

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