The majority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was feeling pretty good about its view of the broadband world at the Commission meeting March 19. The Commission released not only its latest statistics on “high-speed” broadband access, but also approved a report to Congress showing that broadband was being deployed in a “reasonable and timely fashion” as the Telecom Act of 1996 requires.
Chairman Kevin Martin took a look at the availability of broadband services through telephone companies and cable companies, finding that 82 percent of the population has “high-speed” Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service and 96 percent have cable modem service. He pronounced this state of affairs “good news for consumers and good news for the country,” despite the fact that only about 22 percent of the country actually subscribes to high-speed services – even under the FCC’s abysmal definition of 200 kbps. That’s because the law requires an evaluation of broadband being “deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely manner,” not actually being used. Commissioner Robert McDowell sang the praises of the free market, noting: “We are seeing impressive developments in new technologies using cable, copper, fiber, wireless, and satellite, that are giving Americans more choices and greater availability of advanced telecommunications services.” Whether those developments are actually being used is, again, another story.
The Commission then went on to approve a new set of data-collection requirements that will, one hopes, produce more relevant data on what the real broadband market looks like. Getting more information out of the telephone companies and others won’t be easy. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has to approve the new forms. In Maryland, when some new reporting requirements were proposed by Del. Herman Taylor (D-Ashton) that would have had some simple reports asking for deployment of broadband, the carriers whined about the new “burdensome” requirements and killed Taylor’s bill. (Also killed by the legislature was a bill by the Communications Workers of America, Verizon and Comcast to set up a Connect Kentucky-like organization in Maryland. That was a good thing because it would have allowed the companies to filter the data they wanted to report.)
We’ll see if the telephone companies and friends try to sneak in through the back door and tinker with the FCC’s new requirements through the OMB process. After all, the telephone companies appear to have quite a bit of pull with the current Administration on other issues, such as giving the companies retroactive immunity for apparently illegal surveillance. Knocking a few lines off of a form would be considered child’s play.
Even if the new FCC data requirements come through, however, there will be a significant flaw. As much as the new information will produce details on broadband speeds put into different categories, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein pointed out one crucial failing – the new numbers won’t distinguish residential from commercial services.
Unfortunately for the Commission, another set of figures was released that day, by the European Commission, on how well the EC is doing on the broadband front. According to the EC, eight of their number had higher broadband penetration rates than the U.S. Those are: Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The first four had penetration rates higher than 30 percent, the EC said.
Viviane Reding, the European Union’s Telecoms Commissioner, said: “The European regulatory model is designed to increase competition in the telecoms market and this certainly is starting to pay off.” That model has a much more extensive system of access to incumbent lines, leaving more room for competitors in the broadband market, a stark contrast to the U.S. model. Overseas, the prices are dropping while the speeds are increasing. Here, not so much.
In fact, it’s a wonder there is any competition left in the U.S. telecom market at all. As it happened, on the same day that the FCC issued its data on broadband deployment, it also issued a new report on local telephone competition – which was supposed to bring lower prices and more innovations but is now more or less comatose.
Putting the broadband data together with the report competition report, one might conclude that we are living in a society with a vibrant telecommunications market. Of course, that local competition data is as suspect as is the data on broadband penetration. That information, also, subscribes to the model that if one customer in a ZIP code has service, the whole area is served. And there is no separation of residential and business lines.
Even so, the decline in competitors is clear. According to the FCC, there are competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) doing business in Maryland. According to the FCC, the ZIP code with the most CLECs, 21227, is located near the intersection of the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 95, a heavily developed office park area. There are 33 CLECs doing business there, the FCC reported. Of course, the FCC reported there are 29 doing business in downtown Baltimore and 21 in my little town of Olney, a largely residential area.
The FCC won’t tell you which carriers they are, but a check of the Maryland Public Service Commission shows there are 133 carriers with certificates to offer local facilities-based service in the state. On the other hand, the list of carriers no longer doing business in Maryland is 548 companies long.