FCC Approves New Broadband Mapping Plan

Grant Gross, IDG News Service
PC World
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; 9:06 PM

Responding to long-time criticisms about its broadband measurements, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission   on Wednesday voted to approve a broadband mapping plan that would break down broadband availability by speed across the country and provide a more granular look at where broadband is available.

The plan that could help the agency pinpoint problems with broadband availability and give it a better idea where speeds are lacking.

The FCC says that more than 99 percent of the U.S. postal Zip Codes have at least one broadband provider. But critics have said the FCC's data is flawed because it counts a Zip Code as covered by broadband if one address in the Zip Code has service available, and the agency has counted anything above 200K bps (bits per second) as broadband.

The new plan would measure broadband availability by Census tract, a geographic area that's typically significantly smaller than a Zip Code. And the agency will break out five speed tiers in its upcoming broadband reports, the lowest tier being 200K bps to 768K bps and the fastest tier more than 6M bps.

Public Knowledge, an advocacy group focused on digital rights, gave the FCC a "mixed review" on its broadband actions Wednesday. In addition to the new broadband mapping plan, the FCC issued a report saying broadband deployment was proceeding in a "reasonable and timely" manner.

"The commission today presented a mixed message to the public," said Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president and co-founder. "It is a mystery why the commission chose to issue this report when, mere moments later, the commission admitted the inadequacy of the information by starting the process to update the data collection on broadband."

While the FCC should be commended for "recognizing the need to change long-outdated definition of broadband it had been using," it should have also separated residential data from commercial data, Sohn said. The FCC also failed to address broadband pricing data measurement for now, she said.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin noted that high-speed lines in the U.S. increased by 22 percent to 100 million lines in the first half of 2007. While broadband deployment is proceeding, "there is certainly more work to be done," Martin said. "This improved data will enable us to better identify and analyze the deployment of broadband throughout the nation."

But Commissioner Michael Copps noted that broadband customers in many other nations have speeds of 25M bps to 100M bps for less money per month than U.S. customers pay for less than 10M bps.

"The fact is that your country and mine has never had any cognizable national broadband strategy to get the job done," Copps said. "We've been working with one hand tied behind our backs, inhibited by the commission's dependence on antiquated methodologies and less than rigorous analysis. I'm happy we're starting to change our benchmarks, but, my goodness, how late it is."

About 54 percent of U.S. broadband customers had cable modem service as of June 30, according to the FCC statistics released Wednesday. About 34 percent had DSL (Digital subscriber lines), and about 2 percent had fiber lines. Other technologies accounted for the remainder.

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