Wednesday, September 05, 2012

FCC: redefining broadband?

In its press release announcing the findings of its most recent research into broadband speeds and availability in the USA (more on this here), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) included the following statement regarding its approach to future studies:
"Technology and the needs of businesses and consumers continue to evolve, the FCC notes in a Notice of Inquiry also released today that seeks public input for the next annual report. Because higher-speed broadband is increasingly available and market offerings continue to change, the Notice of Inquiry explores how to keep the broadband report up-to-date, including further examining the role of mobile services and next-generation, high-speed services in the FCC’s next annual evaluation of broadband availability."
The notice of inquiry asks some interesting questions about how broadband availability should be defined and measured, particularly regarding the importance of latency and data capacity as well as speed in relation to "determining whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans." The inquiry notes that "for some applications, latency is more important than bandwidth" and questions if and how the FCC should "consider capacity restrictions when benchmarking "advanced telecommunications capacity" for fixed services."

The inquiry also seeks comment about how mobile broadband availability should be evaluated and the role of mobile broadband, particularly whether availability requirements can be met using mobile technology alone. The FCC has previously acknowledged that "fixed and mobile broadband services are complementary and have their own unique attributes, and it established a policy goal of ensuring that all Americans ultimately have access to both fixed and mobile broadband services." The notice of inquiry raises an interesting question about the role of mobile vs fixed broadband:
"We also seek comment about whether a household or geographic area should be considered served by “advanced telecommunications capability” only if it has access to both fixed and mobile broadband services, as defined using the respective benchmarks, or if the mobile service meets the benchmark for fixed broadband service. This approach is consistent with our recognition that high speed, high quality, and mobility are all important characteristics of broadband service today."
Schools are a focus for the inquiry too:
"Section 706 also requires us to examine broadband availability in elementary and secondary schools and classrooms. In the last report, we stated that “[w]hile school systems will need speeds substantially faster than the benchmark, we find, based on SBI Data, that providers offer download speeds of at least 25 Mbps to only 63.7 percent of the nation’s schools, suggesting that many schools may not have a sufficient level of broadband service.” Should we adopt a speed threshold specifically for fixed broadband services to elementary and secondary schools? What speeds do most school systems need so that students are able “to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology?” What data or metrics are available to make this determination?…According to results of a recent survey of E-rate funded schools and libraries, as many as 80 percent of schools and libraries believe that their broadband connections do not meet their needs generally, and for 55 percent of these respondents, the primary reason is that their broadband speeds are too slow. How should the Commission evaluate the adequacy of broadband connectivity for schools and libraries?"
The questions raised in the FCC's inquiry echo the concerns expressed by Point Topic analyst Tim Johnson at the recent Broadband Forum meeting in Bucharest that broadband targets should focus on the user experience as well as speed. From Point Topic's press release:
"“Every European country is planning how to deliver superfast to all its citizens by 2020,” Johnson points out. “But the emphasis is too much on the headline speeds and not enough on the user experience."...He believes that the policy makers should be focusing on the extra homes connected per pound or per euro, plus the need for good performance at the speeds people actually use. “Twenty megabits with good quality of service is better than 100 megabits without,” he says. The official targets also ignore issues like performance across multiple superfast networks using different technologies, needed for users to get good quality end-to-end performance on video calls for example. There is also an issue about the proposed use of mobile networks to fill the gaps in fixed broadband coverage. Although they may meet the speed requirement at a basic level they are not technically well-adapted to supporting the continuous high-volume flows of data which video applications need."
Commentaries from ISP Review here, Total Telecom here, Broadband Choice here and uSwitch here.

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