Blair Levin, lead creator of the national broadband plan (NBP), has been busy these days with his Gig U effort, working through the Aspen Institute to create high-capacity networks for universities and other initiatives that promote broadband adoption. Ever since Blair was brave and bold enough to attend an NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association meeting and debate the merits of the broadband plan, we have always found a way to find agreement on the need for more robust efforts on the broadband adoption front.
I read with interest this week the speech that Blair gave out in Madison, Wis., on Gig U efforts and his comments delved into the expansion of broadband access. While he gave credit to the FCC for tackling USF reform, he raised some interesting questions when it came to the metrics used to measure the success of USF reform if the metric in question was the expansion of broadband access for all Americans. He asked, “What has happened since 2011?”
- No consumer prices affected by the fund have gone down.
- The fund has increased in size (due to Lifeline support).
- The subsidy to provide the fund has gone up (He used the tax word, which I greatly disagree with. USF is a support mechanism supported by carriers, not government.).
- The FCC has kicked the can further down the road on dealing with reform of the contribution factor.
But in Levin’s analysis, the biggest shortfall is that while the NBP demonstrated that the biggest problem of unserved areas stemmed from the lack of incentives in areas controlled by the largest carriers—and in those rural areas they serve. These large carriers said that reform would not catalyze deployment and, hence, no new broadband in these underserved areas post-reform. He also cited NTCA’s own survey on the chilling effect USF reform has had on small carriers, noting, “to make matters worse, in those areas where the fund was driving broadband investment, reform has stalled progress. A survey (NTCA’s) of small rural phone companies showed that 69% of the respondents have cancelled or postponed investments due to uncertainty about the restructuring. The failure of the reform to address the markets specifically targeted by the plan puts it in a hole.”
It will be critical for the newly appointed FCC chairman, whoever that might be, to try to correct some of the policies and data errors in the order in an effort to climb out of that hole and really strive to achieve this administration’s stated goal of broadband access for all Americas.