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Summary:

For the third time the FCC has failed the U.S. when it comes to bridging the digital divide. In it’s eighth broadband report the agency finds that broadband is not yet being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion. So now what?

Despite Google’s fiber to the home network in Kansas City and the spread of cable’s 100 Mbps speeds, the U.S. is failing to deploy broadband in a reasonable and timely fashion, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The declaration that the nation’s Internet service providers aren’t meeting the needs of the public for the third year in a row would be a pretty big statement, if the agency hadn’t stood back while the Department of Justice approved a spectrum sale and marketing agreements that will further reduce the state of broadband competition.

In its eighth annual broadband report the FCC notes that 19 million Americans live in places where there’s no broadband access delivered at speeds above 3Mbps. And of those 19 million people, 4.5 million don’t live in rural locations where it can be expensive to install the physical infrastructure necessary to offer broadband. That’s the equivalent of a city larger than Los Angeles not having broadband, and speaks to an accessibility problem which can be laid at the feet of ISPs reluctant to deploy networks in poor and rural areas.

But there’s a larger problem — and it’s one that Silicon Valley should pay attention to. Of those who could get broadband speeds above 3 Mbps only 40 percent do so. That means many of the people reading this blog are in the broadband minority in both their current access and their desire for faster speeds.

Given that broadband access and faster speeds are not just a gateway to entertainment in the form of Netflix or social networking like Facebook, but also the underpinning of much innovation, the idea that so many residents are content to amble along the web is a business problem for Silicon Valley and a political problem for those concerned about America’s role in the global economy.

I’m not sure why those Americans are content with their DSL lines or low-end cable subscriptions, but the simplest is that they don’t agree that faster speeds are worth the higher cost of broadband. To goose the demand side, we need better applications designed for faster networks, but we also need to see prices drop and ISPs to stop doing things such as implementing broadband caps. Netflix for example, is the type of service that might entice users to upgrade their connections, but they won’t if the cost is super high and there’s a chance they might end up getting charged an overage fee.

Thus millions of Americans are content with slower connections, caps and basic apps, while those of us in the tech world wonder why the heck more people aren’t complaining about data caps and a lack of fiber to the home. Maybe that’s the digital divide we should tackle first.

Post image courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz.

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  1. I have several concerns with the FCC’s eighth annual report:
    1. Coverage in many rural areas depends on wireless service vs. DSL, Cable, or Fiber.
    2. Wireless service comes with restrictions and is not conducive for “whole-house” service.
    3. The coverage data from wireless carriers is often overly optimistic and incorrect.
    4. There is limited validation (if any) of the coverage data – it is based on estimated coverage models, not on-the-ground measurements or subscriber feedback.
    5. The granularity of the data is coarse and aggregates up to the highest service level.

    Case in point: I live South of Santa Cruz. Although the Section 706 Fixed Broadband Deployment Map shows 10Mbps+ in my area from both Verizon and T-Mobile. Verizon’s coverage locator shows excellent 3G and 4G service despite the fact that the max signal strength at my house varies from 0-1 bars. T-Mobile’s coverage map show no service at my address (correct), however their map shows excellent 3G/4G service within a mile. Nonetheless, both companies report “above National Average” service to my address.

    There may be 10Mbps service within 1-2 miles from my house. That seems to qualify my entire census track for coverage. However, that does not help the 100+ underserved residents in my area or the many similar areas up and down the coast..

    These errors in the broadband mapping data may provide another possible explanation for low adoption of broadband. If the actual availability is significantly lower, and less practical than the reported availability, users may not be choosing low bandwidth service. They may not have the choice.

  2. Wow, funny how two people can take away such different messages. As a rural satellite customer (whose average speeds don’t get close to that 3Mbps), I’m horrified by your “solution” to what _you_ see as the problem. You write “To goose the demand side, we need better applications designed for faster networks.” But that would make my Internet experience even worse, wouldn’t it? To my mind, there are too many applications now that require, to be usable, a faster network than I have available.

    I–and many of my neighbors–have got plenty of demand. I just wish there was a decent supply to be had.

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