Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (4)

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[This post continues from the previous one, comparing the FCC and CRTC approaches to the principle of universality, and finding the CRTC’s approach to broadband puts this principle at risk.]

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For my money, the key lesson we can take from Chairman Wheeler’s FCC lies in the willingness to admit when they’ve got a big problem on their hands. The FCC spends little time reflecting on its successes, compared to worrying about how they will correct market failures and right social injustices. In that spirit, Wheeler’s recent statement on the new Lifeline proceeding gets straight to the main issue: “…nearly 30% of Americans still don’t have broadband at home, and low-income consumers disproportionately lack access.”

Compare that blunt admission to the CRTC’s habit of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. The rosy glow is not confined to decisions; it’s also been a feature of the CRTC’s research documents. Take last year’s Communications Monitoring Report on telecommunications (pdf uploaded here). Turning to the section on the Internet market sector and broadband availability (p.171), the reader is hard-pressed to see that anything is amiss in this parallel universe.

What matters here is potential connectivity, not takeup: “All Canadian households in urban centres can access broadband Internet service, compared to 84% of households in rural communities.” That statement tells us why the CRTC sees Canada’s broadband problems through the lens of gaps in rural infrastructure. What about the urban poor? What about rural inhabitants who have “access” but fear the Internet or what ISPs are charging? At no point in the 131-page CMR do we stumble on any of the following expressions: affordability, digital literacy, non-adopters, poor.

fcc-logoThe first step in fixing a problem…

In its regular broadband progress reports, the FCC is tasked by law to determine whether “advanced telecommunications capability” is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion – that capability being interpreted as high quality broadband access. In the Introduction to the current report (released February 4, 2015; pdf uploaded here), we read this summary assessment:

“Although public- and private-sector initiatives continue to advance deployment, these advances are not occurring broadly enough or quickly enough. Recent data show that approximately 55 million Americans (17 percent) live in areas unserved by fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband or higher service, and that gap closed only by three percentage points in the last year. We therefore conclude that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion” (para 4, my emphasis).

This passage brings us back to the vexing question of national speed targets. In its current notice (CRTC 2015-134), the CRTC states that “… in recognition of the evolving nature of the Internet and consumer expectations, the Commission stated that it may revisit [its] target speeds” (para 22) – these speeds being 5 meg down and 1 meg up. The FCC, by comparison, goes one crucial step further by making its 25/3 threshold not just a target, but the minimum speeds for a service to qualify as broadband in the first place.

The CRTC’s 2014 CMR falls far short of this bold redefinition. In the CMR, “broadband” is pegged as any service running at 1.5 Mbps or above (p.179).

I assume that what deters the CRTC from setting more ambitious targets has much to do with the interested parties wanting to look praiseworthy. If the Commission upped its targets to FCC levels, its broadband “success” story would collapse like a house of cards. Whether it’s politics or short-sightedness, the CRTC analysis of what Canadians need to live online has unusual gaps.

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Take, for example, the chart above, which appears on p.189 of the 2014 CMR and purports to show how much bandwidth is rerquired for various online applications. I see HD video streaming falls conveniently somewhere in the 1.5-to-5 Mbps range. It might – in single-device, single-person households. What’s conspicuous by its absence, however, is the brute fact that most households now run multiple devices which together need much higher amounts of bandwidth than a single computer, smart-TV or game console.

netflix-logoBy the way, lest anyone assume the FCC’s 25/3 broadband threshold was concocted out of thin air, the 2015 Broadband Progress Report makes it clear that FCC staff got this crazy idea from intervenors like DISH, Public Knowledge and Netflix. The latter noted in its comments to the FCC that as “consumers interact with increasingly sophisticated content and services on increasingly sophisticated devices, a 25 Mbps connection is fast becoming ‘table stakes’ in 21st century communications” (see Report, p.29, footnote 205). 

The bane of the Canadian Internet (that would be Netflix) also had this to say to the FCC in its comments on realistic broadband needs:

“Given the centrality of the Internet to Americans’ everyday lives and the average of 2.58 individuals per household, simultaneous access of Internet content and services by multiple members of the same household is becoming the norm” (Report, p.29, footnote 207).

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Is this the broadband we want for everyone?

As I suggested earlier, fighting for universal Canadian broadband is a worthy cause, but it may have a risky downside. We could end up with an outmoded idea of what broadband performance should be, as well as a set of social priorities that construes rural Canadians as the only citizens who have been disenfranchised as onliners.

If our regulator is satisfied with target speeds that are way below international standards, then it seems likely that any universal broadband program will saddle Canadians with access that is far too slow to allow them to “participate meaningfully in the digital economy today and in the future” – the clarion call that sets the tone in the preamble to the CRTC’s basic service notice. Moreover, if neither the CRTC nor its political masters want to find out why 20% of Canadians have declined to be broadband adopters, then we also run the risk of paying for more supply-side resources, while continuing to live with a digital divide that puts Ottawa’s claims of “world-class” communications to shame.

D.E.