The biggest, by far, broadband service and infrastructure program in the U.S. is the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund, which is handing out $3 billion – $590 million in California – over the next decade. It’s been paying that money to Internet service providers – mostly incumbent telephone companies – who promise to provide a minimum service level of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.
That standard is about to be raised to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds for some telephone companies because, an FCC draft decision says, “we recognise that access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service is not a luxury for urban areas, but a necessity for all”.
It’s good news, and the republican majority on the FCC deserves credit for putting it on next month’s meeting agenda: approval is a virtual certainty. It’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s not mission accomplished yet.
In its draft, released just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, the FCC proposes to offer additional money to telephone companies that fall under the “rate of return” rules, if they upgrade their broadband infrastructure to support the 25/3 standard. There are different scenarios for how they might qualify for the extra money, and doing so is largely optional – the FCC would still subsidise 10/1 service.
“Rate of return” telcos are those that are still regulated based on costs and a particular return on their investment. The two biggest telcos in California – AT&T and Frontier Communications – do not fall into that category. They operate under the newer and inappropriately named “price cap” rules that let them charge as much as they want for broadband service (there are limits on telephone service charges, but not so strict that it makes a significant difference). A third, mid-sized telco in the Sacramento area, Consolidated Communications, is similarly unregulated, as is CenturyLink, which serves a few dozen homes along the Oregon border in Modoc County.
Small, rural telephone companies are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission under the “rate of return” rules, though, and the new FCC incentives would apply to them.
The FCC said its decision to begin raising the standard was “informed by our recent auction to award universal service support in eligible areas”. In that auction, ISPs submitted bids to provide a particular level of service in return for a particular subsidy, with higher speeds and better quality getting preferential treatment. According to the FCC, 99.7% of the homes and businesses getting subsidised service as a result will be able to get 25/3 speeds or better.
The FCC’s move matches an earlier decision by the federal agriculture department to raise the minimum standard for its rural broadband subsidy programs to 25/3.
We are not so lucky in California, though. AT&T, Frontier, Comcast, Charter Communications and other big telecom companies paid key lawmakers tens of thousands of dollars each, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in aggregate, this past legislative session. In return, lawmakers approved a $300 million broadband subsidy program, courtesy of Californian taxpayers, that lowered California’s minimum acceptable broadband speed to 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.