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July 14, 2010 10:40 AM

The Problem With FCC's 4Mbps/1Mbps Universal Broadband Goal

There's been a lot of buzz recently around Congress questioning the FCC's decision to set a universal broadband goal of 4Mbps down 1Mbps up by 2020 relative to the FCC's 100 Squared goal of 100 million homes having access to 100Mbps by that time.

Congress thinks that by setting a low universal broadband standard that the FCC is relegating rural America to being second class digital citizens that will always be at a disadvantage connectivity wise compared to city dwellers.

The FCC's argument is threefold:

1. That the 4Mbps/1Mbps standard reflects the average speeds that Americans use today
2. That their 4Mbps/1Mbps standard for universal broadband is actually higher than almost any other country's
3. That their plan is to revisit this standard every couple of years so they can adjust these numbers as needed over time

But there are significant problems with all three of these assertions.

1. How can we justify setting standards that state that it's good enough that rural Americans will have access to the average speed needed for today's applications ten years from now? That's the very definition of creating second class digital citizens, and seemingly ignores the likelihood that by 2020 life-changing apps that require 10Mbps and beyond will be commonplace.

2. What the FCC conveniently fails to note is that those other countries with lower standards for universal broadband also have much shorter timeframes for achieving them. Sure they may only be shooting for 1Mbps but their goal is to have that universally available within the next two to five years, not the next decade.

3. This is where it's hard not to perceive the FCC as being rather ignorant of the potential impact of their decisions. It's easy to say that we can just revisit the speeds in the future, but these aren't academic discussions, these decisions have real-world consequences.

What the FCC seems to fail to understand is that whatever standard they set should have a direct impact on the kind of broadband networks that get built out, but even more importantly whatever broadband networks get built are what rural America's going to be stuck with for the foreseeable future.

Investment in broadband is done with an understanding that whatever networks get built are expected to be used for years in order to realize a return on that investment. So a 4Mbps/1Mbps network built today is likely expected to still be in use by 2020.

So if we invest all our money in 4Mbps/1Mbps networks, how do we guarantee that our broadband infrastructure can be leveraged to deliver exponentially greater capacity in the future?

Imagine a scenario where the FCC doesn't revisit its universal broadband standard until 2012. That means we'll have had two years of investment in networks that can support 4Mbps/1Mbps but with no guarantees that those networks can reliably deliver more bandwidth. So let's say the FCC wises up and increases the universal standard to 10Mbps/10Mbps. Now what are we supposed to do with all the networks that have been built to only support 4Mbps/1Mbps?

Luckily, the FCC isn't the only player in this equation, and at least RUS seems to have an understanding of this fundamental challenge of rural broadband as they've focused the bulk of their stimulus funding on full fiber networks that can scale to meet any bandwidth demand.

But that doesn't change the fact that if the FCC sticks to its 4Mbps/1Mbps universal standard, that we risk wasting a lot of investment by saddling rural America with inadequate networks that may have to be overbuilt in the not-too-distant future.

While I fully respect the need to get everyone connected as quickly as possible, we can't ignore the reality of what it's going to take to make sure all Americans have equal opportunity to realize the full potential of the Internet.

If we continue to duck the hard questions by kicking this can down the road, we risk wasting our precious limited resources building networks that are inadequate for America's needs and thereby miss the opportunity to protect the future of our rural communities.

And I, for one, have to agree with Congress that this is an unacceptable scenario, that we can't afford to create second-class digital citizens, and that if anything rural America needs high capacity networks even more than urban.

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