Telecoms push back at FCC’s digital divide report

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The telecom industry is blasting a draft Federal Communications Commission report that highlights the millions of Americans without Internet connections that meet the agency’s speed benchmarks to count as broadband.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler touched off the firestorm by releasing a draft of his 2016 report, stating that 34 million lack Internet access at the minimum broadband benchmark speeds of 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload. He also pointed to a “urban-rural digital divide,” which has left 39 percent of the rural population with no means to get fixed broadband at all.

“While the nation continues to make progress in broadband deployment, advanced telecommunications capability is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion to all Americans,” reads the report, named for section 706 of the Communications Act.

Shortly after the report’s release last week, several companies and trade groups took to the Internet to rip the report, given that the FCC released a similar report at the end of last month stating that there have been “significant improvements in broadband speeds and quality” over the past year.

“It’s bad enough the FCC keeps moving the goalposts on their definition of broadband, apparently so they can continue to justify intervening in obviously competitive markets,” said Jim Cicconi, AT&T senior executive vice president of legislative affairs.  “But now they are even ignoring their own definition in order to pad their list of accomplishments.”

“Despite the significant, year-over-year advances in broadband capabilities underscored in the Commission’s own data, the conclusions of the FCC’s 706 Report continue an alarming trend of ignoring objectivity and facts in order to serve political ends and maximize agency power,” said the National Cable and Telecommunications Association in a release. “The fact that the Commission released the positive Measuring Broadband America report without fanfare during the quietest week of the year [between Christmas and New Year] while trumpeting its Section 706 findings far and wide just two weeks later confirms that this report is more theater than substance.”

The Section 706 report also highlights a number of initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide, which are being supported by a number of other telecom companies. ConnectHome — a plan to provide broadband to low-income families in 27 U.S. cities — has backing from companies such as Google, CenturyLink and Cox Communications.

Last week, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, whose agency oversees ConnectHome, spoke with Alphabet (the holding company that owns Google) chairman Eric Schmidt about the importance of closing the digital divide.

“For America to be as competitive as possible, we need to be sure that everyone on the income scale, particularly our young people, have 21st Century tools to compete in the job market,” Castro said. “Over half of the folks that are low income and the vast majority of people in public housing don’t have Internet access. Or in theory, their community is wired, but they can’t afford it. Either way, they are not reaping the benefits of being connected right now.”

Castro said whether it’s through fixed or mobile broadband, closing the divide should be looked at as “low hanging fruit” for telecom companies.

“There are so many young people that are growing up that have the potential to be the next Google,” he said. “We have to figure out ways to scale. Being able to improve their circumstances is fantastically important.”

AT&T has recently put forth its own plan to offer cheap, nonbroadband Internet to low-income families, with a DSL-based service of up to 1.5 Mbps starting at $5 a month or up to 5 Mbps for $10 a month, both of which double in price after one year.

While the U.S. tries to close the divide between the digital haves and have-nots, even its broadband haves can’t match the speeds of other countries. According to last year’s State of the Internet report from Akamai, the U.S. was outside of the top 10 countries with the fastest average broadband speed.

Contact the reporter on this story via email at greg.otto@fedscoop.com, or follow him on Twitter at @gregotto. His OTR and PGP info can be found hereSubscribe to the Daily Scoop for stories like this in your inbox every morning by signing up here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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Agencies, AT&T, broadband, C4, CenturyLink, Cloud, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Eric Schmidt, FCC, Federal Communications Commission, Google, Tech
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