FCC: Critical gaps undermine drive toward universal broadband

NOVEMBER 18, 2009 -- The task force gathering data and developing draft proposals for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) National Broadband Plan has identified what the commission called “critical gaps” in the nation’s policies, programs, and practices that must be filled before America can take advantage of the technological advantages that universal adoption and deployment of affordable, robust broadband can bring.

NOVEMBER 18, 2009 -- The task force gathering data and developing draft proposals for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) National Broadband Plan has identified what the commission called “critical gaps” in the nation’s policies, programs, and practices that must be filled before America can take advantage of the technological advantages that universal adoption and deployment of affordable, robust broadband can bring. These gaps range across all elements of the broadband ecosystem, including networks, applications, devices, and end-user adoption.

The task force developed the list of challenges from data gathered in a series of nearly 40 workshops and field hearings, from over 10,000 comments on the National Broadband Plan Notice of Inquiry and 15 public notices, and in the analysis of existing studies and data. The FCC says additional information gathering and analysis continues, which includes a new survey commissioned by the task force that aims to provide extensive data about households that don’t adopt broadband.

Over the coming weeks, the task force will begin to develop a range of options for consideration by the FCC for bridging the gaps in the pathway to universal broadband. The FCC is required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to submit the National Broadband Plan to Congress by Feb. 17, 2010.

Key gaps identified by the task force include:

  • The Federal Universal Service Fund (USF) doesn’t support broadband deployment and adoption despite over $7 billion spent to subsidize telecommunications annually. The majority of USF funding supports affordable phone service, not broadband. In addition, the four USF programs are not coordinated to maximize deployment opportunities to fill broadband gaps.
  • Broadband adoption levels vary widely across demographic groups. Nearly 90 percent of families with incomes of $100,000 or more subscribe to broadband services, compared to 35 percent with incomes of $20,000 or less. Rural households are less likely to subscribe than urban households. Only 40 percent of Hispanic households subscribe, followed by 46 percent of African-American households, while 65 percent of white households subscribe.
  • Consumers lack information about actual performance of their broadband service compared to the advertised speeds. They also can’t accurately compare performance of competing services. Meanwhile, application providers lack knowledge of network performance, dampening innovation.
  • A “spectrum gap” frustrates mobile broadband growth. Identifying available spectrum, reallocating it, and assigning it is often a long, multi-year process. Spectrum is also critical for public safety, telemedicine, smart grid, and civic engagement applications.
  • High costs can limit broadband deployment. Middle Mile” costs for transit and transport of Internet traffic can cost rural providers up to $150 per subscriber annually, almost three times as much as network operations, and can be a serious barrier to rural broadband. The lack of efficient coordination when digging trenches for fiber and other expensive infrastructure costs dramatically increases the cost of deployment. Other outside plant costs, including pole attachments, also drive a “deployment gap.” Deployment gaps for access to advanced, high-speed broadband occur in the small business market marketplace, in rural areas, and to consumers in many residential neighborhoods across the nation.
  • The convergence of video, TV, and IP-based technology is creating a new broadband medium that could drive adoption and utilization. However, lack of devices is a major barrier for adoption -- 99 percent of U.S. households have a TV versus 76 percent with PCs. Retail navigation device and set–top-box market competition has not emerged, limiting innovation.
  • Users need to control their own information. Personal data is increasingly digitized and moving to the Internet “cloud.” Users have little control over their personal information. Ensuring privacy and security will enable a new generation of applications, and improve top national priorities that would benefit by secure but accessible personnel information.


Harnessing broadband to achieve key national purposes – which the FCC listed as better health care, education, government performance and civic engagement, economic opportunity, public safety, improvements in energy conservation and environmental protection -- requires better connectivity, although the level of connectivity necessary depends on the nature of the institutions and applications, according to the commission.

Achieving these goals, however, will also require a broadband ecosystem that provides people with training and support in digital skills, ready access to computers and mobile devices, better applications, better security, and other needs, the task force asserts. Further, the ecosystem requires that incentives be aligned to encourage the use of broadband applications; today, there are “a number of rules that discourage the use of broadband,” the task force concludes.

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