In today’s hyperpoliticized technology policy environment, even an annual report can cause controversy. When the FCC began collecting data last month for its yearly review of America’s broadband infrastructure, critics were quick to flag questions about how, if at all, to count increasingly popular satellite, mobile and fixed wireless broadband options as part of the agency’s assessment of whether “advanced telecommunications capability” is being deployed to “all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”
Some, for example, including a dozen Senate Democrats, worry that counting lower-speed mobile services as broadband will distract public and private resources away from offering new high-speed services to geographically remote parts of the country, where adoption is the lowest.
As we see it, the problem isn’t so much how the FCC defines broadband. The problem is that the FCC’s annual report, by law, demands both a factual conclusion and a regulatory call to action. Depending on its findings, the agency is required to increase or decrease regulation.
As a result, the temptation to slant the report’s findings to support a broader agenda has proven difficult to resist. In 2015, for example, the previous FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, more than doubled the standard for what counted as broadband, in part to reflect changing consumer expectations but in part to shore up his legal defense for his desired reclassification of ISPs as common carriers in the contentious Open Internet order.
Raising the standard, the number of competing broadband providers in any given area fell precipitously. What previously seemed “reasonable and timely” suddenly wasn’t.
Though the commission’s current chairman, Ajit Pai, has not proposed lowering the speeds that count as fixed broadband, critics fear that including mobile technologies for the first time could help justify reversal of many of Wheeler’s policy initiatives, including the ISP classification.
The bigger issue here is that Congress has given the agency mixed objectives. While a 1996 law sensibly asks for an annual review of broadband progress, there’s a catch. If the commission finds deployment is not proceeding fast enough, the agency must “take immediate action” by, on the one hand, “removing barriers to infrastructure investment,” and on the other, “promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”
It’s no wonder the annual call for comments has become a political football and, increasingly, an expensive effort that ultimately fails to provide private and public stakeholders the facts they need to make reasoned decisions about broadband investments and government programs.
What the agency, consumers and companies in the Internet ecosystem need is objective data that can be compared over time to measure, well, progress. And not in the form of a static report whose data is at least a year out-of-date by the time of publication.
Instead, the FCC should create an interactive broadband dashboard, one that can be continually updated with the most current information on broadband technologies, speeds, performance and coverage. The dashboard should provide, to paraphrase the old Dragnet TV show, “just the facts.” No opinions about adequacy, timeliness, or what constitutes “reasonable.”
While efforts begun earlier this decade to provide interactive National Broadband maps were worthwhile experiments, they only offered users some information, most of it self-reported by providers. Critically, they were also not routinely updated.
A good example of how objective data can improve policy is the tool created by EducationSuperhighway, a nonprofit working to improve Internet access in every classroom in the United States so that all students can participate in digital learning.
To advance its mission, EducationSuperhighway provides objective information on both the supply and demand sides of the market. The organization has compiled a database on connectivity and projects around the country, and offers tools for policymakers in every state to see where their connectivity gaps are. Buyers can see how much other school districts are paying for bandwidth. Service providers can see what schools in their footprint still lack sufficient access.
The FCC could likewise present the data it collects in ways that enable broadband stakeholders to improve their solutions to deployment issues. As one commentator has suggested, that data can be expanded to show what services broadband customers are actually buying, creating profiles that show, for example what speeds customers with home businesses are buying in different parts of the country.
And just as Waze has reinvented how traffic data is gathered and Data.gov has changed the way government data is accessed, the FCC should also include new data sources and reporting methods. The broadband dashboard should also be designed so that anyone can build new tools to analyze particular state and local infrastructure.
We know, for example, that some parts of rural America still don’t have adequate coverage — something that Congress, the FCC and the industry are eager to correct. But until we have reliable data and standards that evolve organically, determining how and where to deploy both private and public resources efficiently will remain unnecessarily difficult.
Pai has promised to take the politics out of the FCC and restore its reputation as an expert agency. Reinventing the annual broadband progress report to be both objective and interactive would go far toward achieving that goal.
There’s now a nonpartisan consensus that broadband access and adoption are critical in everything from jobs to education, health care and, of course, entertainment. We all want to promote the best solutions to close what remains of the digital divide. Doing so in the face of fast-changing technology, however, requires accurate and timely data.
The FCC could do the country a huge favor by making sure it gets the facts right and letting stakeholders interpret their meaning — before the commission develops its own policy agenda.
Blair Levin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In 2009, he oversaw development of the National Broadband Plan. Larry Downes is project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy and co-author of “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014).