Strengthen the FCC’s Hand through Third Party Validation

While it’s easy this week to get caught up in the Google-Verizon news and bemoan the end of the Internet as we know it (though I think the real news is that Verizon gave net neutrality advocates a HUGE boost), a little watched sub-plot is cooking in the FCC vs. incumbents Battle for DC Domination. The FCC may be waving the V sign soon, but for Validation. Here’s why validation can mean victory for communities wanting better broadband.

Implementation of the National Broadband Plan has kind of stalled in the face of a he-said/she-said argument of epic proportions. Communities, consumer advocates, a lot of policy wonks and a majority of the FCC have been vigorously stating that (summarized) “broadband in the U.S. sucks!” Incumbents and their allies have been stating just as vigorously “no it doesn’t suck and we’ll spend a ge-zillion dollars telling you it doesn’t. If the FCC issues a report, we’ll spend another ge-zillion telling everybody why the report sucks.”

Who’s right? More importantly, who is right enough to persuade the policy making machine in D.C. and influence broadband deployments locally. This is where the V-word comes in. Lack of independent validation (Connected Nation doesn’t count) is the Achilles heel of the broadband stimulus, those grants sent to states to develop broadband maps, the national plan, attempts at Congressional legislation and the role of the FCC as broadband regulator.

If you don’t have reliable data of who has broadband, where, at what speed and from which provider, how do you know where to send money and resources to attack the problems. Hells bells, how do you even know you have a problem? Needless to say, that begs the next question, how do you fix things when you have entities spending millions to tell us there’s nothing to fix?

In the FCC’s recent 706 Report on the state of broadband in the U.S., which I critique here, one of the great things they did was redefine broadband so the speed is more closely aligned to what you need in order for networks to impact economic development, healthcare delivery, etc. Forget for a moment the weakness of the baseline minimum speed of 4Mbps. Even this definition immediately changes for the better the discussion of who is served by broadband and who isn’t. However, none of that means squat if you can’t validate who’s meeting that new definition (read about the FCC’s request for comments on their new definition).

Enter ID Insight. They’re a data and analytics service firm (also one of my business partners helping me do my day job) that has broadband data on 100 million residences and businesses.

As an exercise to show off the capabilities of their BroadBand Scout service, they did a data validation analysis of the FCC 706 Report. They wrote an analysis report I contributed to that not only examines why the FCC is spot on in their assessment of the sad state of broadband in America, but also addresses why the definitions we use and our ability to validate them is critical for meaningful improvements in broadband.

Why validation is critical

There are five main takeaways from their report. “Several issues and questions our analysis raises that policymakers, national and local government officials, community stakeholders and private‐sector organizations should consider.”

  1. How broadband is defined in terms of speed has a direct impact on which counties and communities are designated as served, un-served and underserved. Where and how literally billions of dollars and countless resources are committed to broadband deployment is impacted by how broadband is defined.
  2. To date it may be unclear to some stakeholders how definitions of broadband and subsequent goals for achieving it are established. However, does it make sense to have these definitions be flexible enough to evolve as technology and end users’ (consumers, businesses, anchor institutions) needs change? A flexibility based not just on the passing of time, but also based on the constituency that is being assessed for broadband need.
  3. Universal Service Fund reform likely will lead to billions of dollars being re-positioned to address broadband needs in both rural and urban underserved, un-served and low income areas. Given the significance of the dollars involved, does it not make sense to have a better understanding of these needs during the rule-making process even before the actual evaluation and awarding of grant requests?
  4. How will, or should, federal agencies as well as state and local governments establish means to accurately assess broadband coverage data (e.g. advertised versus actual speeds, type of broadband coverage) both before and after deploying broadband?
  5. Will mobile broadband change the way in which broadband is defined, measured and validated? Within urban areas in particular, the increasing use of smartphones and similar devices is changing work/commute patterns and other factors that affect mobile computing.

You should read the whole report. Not only to understand how ID Insight validated the FCC’s report on several levels, but also to get a general sense of how to move broadband deployment forward. We have watched a fairly straightforward mandate from the White House – improve broadband for all, not just some Americans – get delayed shortly after leaving the station, and threatened with derailment and irreparable damage from endless, expensive he said/she said turmoil.

Make no mistake, the Verizon-Google deal has really thrown the net neutrality discussion front and center, and highlighted in no uncertain terms the critical issue of the FCC’s regulatory authority. But if the net of all this ends up being a revived mandate for the FCC to get broadband done, they can’t get it done right and regular the outcomes without the ability to flash the V-sign early and often.

Click here to read the press release on the new version of BroadBand Scout.

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