Urban and Rural Speed Parity Is Required by 1996-TCA

By Doug Dawson June 27, 2023 | Original POTs and PANs article here

I wrote a recent blog that talked about a recent trend where over 81% of U.S. households are now subscribed to a broadband speed of at least 200 Mbps. I got a lot of comments about that post, mostly from ISPs who think that we are fixated too much on speed and that consumers don’t need faster speeds – they think that the marketing departments of the big ISPs have just convinced folks that faster speeds are important.

But when talking about rural versus urban broadband speeds, the discussion can’t only be about what people need or don’t need. There was an edict from Congress in the 1996 Telecommunications Act (1996-TCA) of that directed the FCC to have parity between urban and rural broadband. There has been no change of law that has softened this mandate, so it’s still something that the FCC must do:

U.S. Code Title 47 § 254. (b) Universal Service Principles.

The Joint Board and the Commission shall base policies for the preservation and advancement of universal service on the following principles:

  • (1) Quality and Rates — Quality services should be available at just, reasonable, and affordable rates.
  • (2) Access to Advanced Services — Access to advanced telecommunications and information services should be provided in all regions of the Nation.
  • (3) Access in Rural and High Cost AreasConsumers in all regions of the Nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular, and high cost areas, should have access to telecommunications and information services, including interexchange services and advanced telecommunications and information services, that are reasonably comparable to those services provided in urban areas and that are available at rates that are reasonably comparable to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.

The FCC has repeatedly ignored this edict. Probably the most extreme example is when they gave over $11 billion to the biggest telephone companies with CAF II to supposedly upgrade DSL to 10/1 Mbps. This was done at a time when cable companies had mostly upgraded to DOCSIS 3.0, and most urban areas had access to speeds between 100 Mbps and 250 Mbps. By the time the CAF II subsidy ended, cable companies had mostly upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1, and urban speed capabilities in most places had reached 1 gigabit.

If anything surpasses the absurdity of CAF II, it’s the national definition of broadband that still sits at a ridiculous speed of 25/3 Mbps. According to the OpenVault latest statistics, only 4.7% of households with broadband are subscribed to speeds under 50 Mbps. That number doesn’t include rural households who can’t buy broadband because there is no reasonable option where they live – but still, the number of households that are using slow speeds has gotten to be a small fraction of broadband users.

Over the last two years, FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel suggested that the definition of broadband should be updated to 100 Mbps download. The OpenVault statistics now put that speed in the rearview window. Any federal definition of broadband has to be at least 200 Mbps. I don’t need to put forth any elegant argument why this is so – the statistics make the point for me. Over 80% of U.S. households are now subscribed to speeds of at least 200 Mbps download. The language in the 1996 Act makes it clear that rural residents ought to have access to broadband that is reasonably comparable to the speeds offered in urban areas. Any interpretation of the phrase “reasonably comparable” would conclude that rural speeds ought to at least be at the low end of subscribed urban broadband speeds – 200 Mbps is the minimum speed for over 80% of households.

The fact that over 80% of households are already subscribed to 200 Mbps speeds or faster (40% of households are subscribed to speeds of 500 Mbps or faster) means that all of our hand wringing over counting homes in the country with speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps is largely a joke. Under any current reasonable definition of broadband, those homes already are at speeds that shouldn’t be counted today as having broadband if the FCC was doing its job.

I really hate the numbers game with broadband, and no matter how we define broadband or set a cutoff for grant eligibility, there will be SPs that will exaggerate the speeds of their current or planned technology to try to game the system. ISPs naturally work to try to protect their service areas from grant funding competition. Other ISPs want to be given grants for technologies that don’t reliably deliver broadband.

But the one thing we should stop doing is measuring broadband by standards that are already in the past in the real world. All of the angst, arguments, and fighting about whether areas are underserved with 100/20 Mbps broadband or slower ought to be scrapped – but unfortunately, the impetus of following grant rules will keep us squabbling about the wrong things for years to come.