Turns Out Our Mobile Broadband Is As Mediocre As Our Wireline Broadband.

It is time once again for folks to file comments in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) annual Notice of Inquiry on the Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Services, aka the Section 706 Report (after Section 706 of the 1996 Act) aka the data (which along with FCC Form 477) which forms the basis for the FCC’s annual “State of the Broadband” report. You can read this year’s notice here. This year’s notice is particularly good, as (befitting a more mature broadband industry than we had when we started running this in 1998), so of course all those who would prefer we set the bar low enough to give ourselves a gold star for showing up hate it. See, for example, Pai dissent here, comments of NCTA here, USTA here.

 

Which makes these two reports on the state of broadband particularly timely. According to Akami, we rank 20th in global broadband speeds. Before the broadband industry and their cheerleaders counter that we have the best mobile broadband/most extensive LTE deployment in the world, I point to this new report from OpenSignal that finds we rank 54th in global mobile network speed.

 

20th and 54th. I’m so proud. USA! USA!

 

I unpack this a little bit below . . . .

 

Section 706 and subsequent amendments on broadband reporting (now codified at 47 U.S.C. 1301-05) require the FCC to determine whether “advanced telecommunications capability” (“broadband” to ordinary people) is being deployed to “all people of the United States” in a timely manner. The problem with terms like “timely” or “advanced” is they are entirely dependent on context. In 20 years, we moved from almost everyone online in the U.S. using dial-up to almost everyone online using some form broadband. That sounds good, until you dig deeper and find out a lot of people in rural areas can barely get 3 mbps down. Also, as discovered by this unfortunate fellow here, companies often claim to serve areas they don’t actually serve. Or, like my friend Dave in Sacramento, you find out that AT&T stopped deploying U-Verse a block away from your subdivision — so your choice is either plain old AT&T DSL at ridiculously slow speeds, or super expensive Comcast with it’s awesome and amazing customer service and sky-high equipment rental fees.

 

So whether you think the FCC should find that we are getting timely broadband deployment depends a lot on your perspective.  Companies and customers that actually need broadband (especially in rural areas), like John Deere & Co. take a rather unhappy view of the current state of deployment. BTW, if you’re broadband sucks and you feel the urge to share this news with the FCC, or you think your provider is totally awesome and wish to sing its praises, please click here and file a comment (the Docket No. is 15-191). For those curious about what my employer Public Knowledge had to say, you can see our comments here.

 

On the other hand, the major broadband companies have filed with paeans of praise for themselves, echoed with hosannas and amens from their cheerleading squad. In particular, we see the oft repeated statement that the U.S. totally-leads-the-world-in-mobile-broadband-we’re-so-awesome-go-us! At the same time, the wireless companies also maintain that because of the unique and wonderful nature of wireless, the FCC should not actually verify our claims of wonderful wireless with metrics and stuff.

 

Why Do We Care About The State Of Broadband Deployment?

 

As Congress explained (in the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008 now codified at 47 USC 1301) deploying even crap broadband did a lot of good stuff, getting ever better broadband deployed to everyone “is vital to ensuring that our nation remains competitive and continues to create businesses and job growth,” and by the time we finish downloading porn at dial-up speeds the Viagra has worn off and we care deeply about our children’s education and public safety.

 

Companies care for two reasons. First, even without any actual consequences, a consistent set of reports on how awful our broadband is would make broadband companies look bad and might lead even the most indolent and bought off member of Congress to ask why we pay so much for bad broadband. That’s why cable companies hate the FCC’s annual report on cable rates. Even though the FCC’s Media Bureau generally does its best to fudge the numbers and obscure things for the benefit of their cable overlords, it still comes out that cable rates rise much faster than inflation and gives everyone who hates cable a talking point.

 

But more importantly, under 47 U.S.C. 1302(b), if the FCC finds that broadband is not being deployed in a timely manner to all Americans, the FCC “shall” take action to promote deployment and adoption. As the first method the statute recommends to the FCC to achieve this is “price caps,” broadband providers — and their buddies in the FCC and Congress who would prefer the FCC have no authority to do anything but auction spectrum — definitely do not want the FCC to make a negative finding which might require it to do stuff.

 

As a result, every time the FCC actually raises the standard of what constitutes “broadband,” or reconsiders how to determine “timely” deployment to “all” Americans, you get loud complaints from broadband industry and its regulatory cheerleaders that the FCC is trying to rig things so it can expand its vast regulatory reach to crush the life and spirit out of the noble mega-conglomerates that are deploying the best of all possible broadbands in the best of all possible countries in the best of all possible worlds. Because, like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, we’re the best! Therefore everything we do is the best. Q.E.D. and who needs stupid reports anyway.

 

In point of fact, it was the FCC’s refusal to raise the speed of broadband (for purposes of defining broadband) from 200 kilobits per second for ten years (adopted 1998 in the First Broadband Report) that prompted Congress to pass the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 1998. Under the Act, the FCC is supposed to make periodic adjustments that reflect the idea that our communications infrastructure is improving and what was good enough in 1998, or even 2010, is not good enough in 2015. Sorry broadband industry, that’s just the nature of the broadband biz. I like to call this broadband buildout meets Zeno’s Paradox.

 

The ke relevant point here is, despite the FCC actually following the law and making regular upgrades to what constitutes “broadband” for purposes of figuring if we’re getting the improvements in broadband we need (and that they are going to all Americans, not just those lucky enough to be near a fast provider and able to afford outrageous rates), we get lots and lots of complaining about how you would have to be either a mad fool or an insatiable regulator determined to ignore the real world evidence of our broadband awesomeness in furtherance of your sinister scheme to impose Stalinist price controls and central planning on our noble Captains of the Broadband Industry.

 

Why We Care About International Rankings.

 

Which makes the two most recent reports on international comparisons rather timely and important for the horde of broadband Panglosses telling us we live in the best of all possible broadband worlds. Both of these are industry reports, with no particular reason to stack the outcomes for or against the U.S. as compared to other countries.

 

Personally, I am not a big fan of international comparisons on broadband. As I have written before, I am not particularly worried about whether we are better than Latvia (answer according to most recent Akami report — still no). Instead, I worry whether everyone in the United States has affordable broadband they can actually use for all of the stuff we need for — like doing homework. (Answer from just about every report — still Hell no.) I will also readily concede, as every good broadband industry cheerleader hastens to point out. That you need to take International comparisons with a grain of salt. Lots if things, like terrain and population density, impact cost of deployment.

 

Nevertheless, International comparisons do tell us whether we in fact live in the best of all possible broadband worlds or not. This is why Congress actually requires the FCC by law to do  international comparisons as part of the annual Broadband Report. In particular, as part of the Congressional findings on why we do the annual Broadband Report is to keep our country competitive with other countries, we need to know if other countries are spanking our little broadband heinies or if we’re the ones doing the kicking of butt. Additionally, while factors like geography and population density might make it harder for us to deploy, we should eventually catch up, right? Because that’s the whole point of American exceptionalism, which is our total awesomeness  and superiority in all things that matter. So even if we ranked 15th globally 5 years ago because South Korea actually had heavy government subsidy, shouldn’t we be getting closer to the top 5 years later?

 

Expected News, We’re Still Slow and Expensive Mediocrities on Wireline.

 

Sadly, our position as global mediocrities appears firmly entrenched, as demonstrated by the most recent report from Akami. We rank 20th globally on overall speed and cost. This is depressingly consistent with most other reports over the last ten years, which tend to rank U.S. wireline broadband speeds and cost as among the slowest and most expensive in the developed world.

 

 

Needles to say, the broadband industry and its cheerleaders did not take this lying down! They spent millions of dollars to prepare lots of talking points and hold events with nifty Powerpoint presentations explaining why the international comparisons should be ignored and failed to capture our true awesomeness and superiority. Because no one deploys like Gaston or annoys like Gaston or writes PAC checks and gives away toys like Gaston (“I promised each staffer a Mi-Fi hotspot!”). And if you will argue that the cost of these presentations, etc. would have been better spent toward deployment of better broadband, you clearly do not know how Washington works.

 

But in particular, the broadband industry and its cheerleading squad place enormous emphasis on our incredibly awesome LTE deployment. For the last several years, we have been deluged with reports of how our LTE now spanks European bottoms and kicks heiny all over the globe. So how can anyone possibly say we aren’t deploying broadband in a timely manner. Look, iPhones! Android! Streaming video on your handheld device while you commute to work on the bus! Take that stupid International comparisons. Our mobile rules, the rest of the world drools. Suck on that FCC, and give me my participation trophy for showing up!

 

Unexpected News, We Are Now Mediocre In LTE.

 

Sadly, the most recent report by a company called OpenSignal has now pretty thoroughly smashed that assessment as well. Turns out when you do take actual measurements (which you may recall the wireless industry insists is not only impossible, but will create a time paradox an disaster second only to when the Pandorica opens), we rank 54th in the world for mobile download speeds. Turns out, once again, our supposedly super fast speeds are actually pretty slow and ridiculously expensive compared to what most other developed countries have — including Europe, whose bottoms we are supposed to be spanking because of our free market and deregulation stuff compared to their wussy socialist regulation. On the plus side, we’ve done a decent job of deployment (if you don’t worry about rural communities with low population and Tribal lands), so we rank a solid “mediocre” rather than “wretched” on our mobile broadband records. Go us!!

 

Mind you, it’s not that our mobile broadband was always mediocre. As in the early days of wireline, we had a huge initial lead. But other countries have caught up, and our major broadband providers are too busy using both arms to pat itself on the back to actually improve the deployments. But while other countries routinely pass us (and each other) in the wireline and wireless broadband rankings, the U.S. keeps staying solidly mediocre once we get dislodged from the top spot.

 

I have no doubt that the broadband industry and their cheerleaders will soon be out there to totally discredit the OpenSignal Report. And, folks in DC being very predictable, as more reports come out confirming our slide to mediocrity in wireless, we will hear lots of explanations for why we should ignore international rankings and how we really live in the best of possible broadband worlds. Because spending millions to spin this is much, much cheaper than actually investing in broadband — particularly in rural areas.

 

Mind you, we could see major advances. Cable has announced a breakthrough in the next generation DOCSIS protocol, and Verizon has announced both an aggressive 5G deployment and experimental new technologies to boost their fiber speeds. Depending on how we play our policy and how the market works out, we could retake the #1 spot (or at least rise out of our current mediocre rankings).

 

But for those not financially invested in the outcome, the latest rankings reports — especially the OpenSignal Report on wireless broadband — ought to put to rest the allegations that Chairman Tom Wheeler and the other Democratic Commissioners have cooked the books because only by cooking the books could anyone imagine that we are somehow not deploying awesome broadband awesomely enough. We are not, at this point, a nation of broadband over-achievers — or even a nation of broadband achievers. We are now a nation of broadband slackers. With luck, we will turn out to be the adorable Seth Rogen slackers who eventually get their crap together and find a real job. But as everyone who has ever seen a romcom knows, you can’t get to the “montage of dramatic improvement” stage until you stop whining about how hard life is and start actually taking responsibility for your life and get it together.

 

So how about a bit less whining about how mean old Chairman Wheeler doesn’t appreciate your awesome broadband, and a little less enabling by the Republican Commissioners, and a lot more emphasis on investing in deployment to everyone at affordable prices?

 

Oh yeah, this is Washington. Nevermind.

 

Stay tuned . . .  .

 

 

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