10 Years After the US National Broadband Plan – The American Jobs Plans Tackles the Same Issue

With the unveiling of the American Jobs Plan and its plan to invest $100 billion to ‘bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American, including the more than 35 percent of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds”; it seemed like an opportune time to revisit our past – since this felt a bit like a déjà vu moment.


In 2010, The FCC delivered its National Broadband Plan to Congress. The plan set out six long-term goals that addressed Innovation and Investment, Inclusion and National Purposes addressing everything from Universal Service Fund reform, cybersecurity, digital literacy, public safety, wireless spectrum, energy management, on-line learning, e-care, social media, as well as broadband availability, adoption and utilization.


These goals – to have been achieved by 2020 – are shown below:

  • Goal 1: 100 million w/100Mbps/50Mbps – Failed to Achieve

  • Goal 2: U.S. should lead world in mobile innovation and fastest wireless network – Depends who you ask

  • Goal 3: Every America should have access to affordable robust broadband – Failed to Achieve

  • Goal 4: Every community should have access to 1Gbps broadband to anchor institutions – Failed to Achieve

  • Goal 5: 1st Responders should have access to Nationwide, interoperable wireless public safety network – Achieved with First Net

  • Goal 6: America leads in the clean energy economy and Americans should be able to use broadband to track and manage real-time energy consumption – Failed to Achieve

Doesn’t look like we did very well, did it?


Similar to the 2010 National Broadband Plan (NBP), the American Jobs Plan lacks clear definition and offers a lot of ambiguity.


Let’s get into the details starting with “Future-Proof” broadband. What exactly does that mean? Isn’t that like saying “it will never happen” – of course, until it does? There’s an old saying that goes, “Predicting the future is easy … getting it right is the hard part.” And there are a long line of predictions that proved so wrong with time you would think we would have learned to stop using terms such as “future-proof”.


Taking it a bit further what exactly is broadband these days? The NBP defined a Universalization Target of 4Mbps/1Mbps by 2020. However, in 2015, the FCC revised its target to 25Mbps/3Mbps.

According to the most recent Internet Access Report from the FCC (2018) – 75 percent of all fixed broadband subscribers met this definition of broadband, and it is certain that this number is higher today.


The Connect America Fund Phase II which was targeted towards providing broadband to unserved and underserved areas required service providers to offer baseline broadband at speeds of at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 1 Mbps upstream – not even meeting its own (FCC) broadband definition.Of course, it should be noted that CAF funding is also technology agnostic – meaning it does not require “fixed” infrastructure – so those hard to reach areas might be served by Satellite, Fixed Wireless or even Mobile broadband services.


On the other hand, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, would direct up to $20.4 billion to expand broadband in unserved rural areas. Areas that qualified were those that remain unserved with broadband speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. Similar to CAF, the broadband technology was agnostic with bids accepted in four performance tiers.

  • Minimum: ≥ 25/3 Mbps

  • Baseline: ≥ 50/5 Mbps

  • Above Baseline: ≥ 100/20 Mbps

  • Gigabit: ≥ 1 Gbps/500 Mbps

In the RDOF Phase I auction, 180 bidders won $9.2 billion over 10 years to provide broadband to 5.2M locations in 49 states and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, with nearly 85 percent supporting gigabit speeds, and the remaining predominately in the ≥ 100/20 Mbps tier.

A further problem is understanding exactly how many are unserved or underserved - a problem that SHOULD have been solved with the $350 Million provided via the State Broadband Data & Development Act back in 2009.


Nonetheless, here we are.


Do Symmetrical Speeds Makes Sense for Everyone?

Another issue for debate is the notion of serving everyone with symmetrical speeds. There have been multiple proposals stating the minimum broadband speed should be 100Mb/100Mb or even 1Gb/1Gb. And while it would be nice to see that – there is a reality that it is not necessary for a large portion of the population.


Its kind of like Mother’s Day – which historically had the highest call volume on the fixed network. And while no one likes a fast busy – it would have been hugely expensive (and passed on to us consumers) to build the network to meet that one-day call volume. The same is true for a symmetric network requirement.


In the U.S. this would be problematic on multiple fronts. The first is the fact that the majority of US broadband subscribers are served by Cable MSOs which utilize a shared network to deliver its broadband services. While they have been in the forefront of higher downstream speeds throughout the past decade, a move towards a symmetric requirement would have a drastic impact on the nearly 70 million subscribers they serve.


Second, a broadband definition that requires symmetrical speeds would immediately expand the number of locations “underserved” and perhaps even unserved – particularly if fiber is the required underlying technology.


Third, this would directly impact non-fixed broadband services such as mobile broadband and satellite – especially those locations where it is virtually impossible to deploy fixed technology - undermining delivery of these broadband solutions in hard to serve areas of the country.


Finally, it is important to note that for the majority, asymmetrical speeds are more than sufficient. Yes, upstream speeds would need to be increased from current levels for many, but demanding full symmetrical speeds, would likely lead to unnecessary investment dollars that could be spent elsewhere – like reducing monthly fees.


What is the Real Goal of the American Jobs Plan as it related to Broadband?

Is it about getting everyone connected that wants to be? Is it about providing the fastest speeds in the world? Is it about making broadband affordable?


These are 3 different issues that would require very different approaches.


And unfortunately, the same obstacles that the U.S. faced with the NBP are still in place today.

  • Lack of competition, which results in lack of choice and higher prices

  • Restrictions on municipal and community networks

  • Lack of reliable data to determine where priorities (and dollars) should be placed

The NBP did spur activity in Fiber to the Home – with Google Fiber stepping up to the plate and challenging the rest of the industry to meet or beat them. This has resulted in a shift towards FTTH in the US which most definitely would be been slower without Google Fiber.


And the AJP has already spurred the 2 largest ISPs in the US – AT& T and Comcast to make significant investments over the next few years to help address the digital divide.


But more needs to be done.

  1. The definition for baseline broadband should be increased. Perhaps the 100Mbp/20Mbp used in RDOF should be the minimum.

  2. The Emergency Broadband Benefit – should become a permanent program (under a different name) – that provides broadband connectivity to those that cannot afford it.

  3. Fiber based broadband should be a default for all new builds unless it is technologically or geographically impossible

  4. Symmetric speeds should be available to those that want them, but should not be a mandatory requirement

  5. Reduce restrictions on municipal and community broadband networks or encourage public/private investment to reach those that are unserved.

Will there every be 100 percent broadband connectivity? Maybe. Maybe Not. Telephone subscribership in the U.S. peaked at 95 percent.


The more things change…the more they stay the same.

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