Broadband lifeline program unjustly slow but has room to improve

28 April 2016 by Steve Blum
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You’ll have to wait and see what next year’s model looks like.

There’s good news and bad news in the full text of the Federal Communications Commission’s lifeline subsidy program for broadband service, which was released yesterday. The bad news is that previous summaries were correct about the low performance standards for subsidised broadband:

  • 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds for fixed service (wireline or wireless), except where existing networks can’t support that level. Then the download standard slips to 4 Mbps.
  • Mobile broadband only has to deliver “3G” service levels, without defining what that might be.
  • Monthly caps are set at 150 GB for fixed service and 500 MB for mobile.

The good news is that speed and usage standards for fixed service will be reviewed every year using quantitative and reasonably objective benchmarks. Fixed service speed levels will be calculated using the subscriber data that ISPs are required to submit to the FCC, with the standard “based on the service to which a ‘substantial majority’ of consumers subscribe”. Substantial majority is described as 70% of consumers. There’s more than a few weasel words in the upgrade criteria, including an escape hatch if FCC staff miss deadlines, but there’s at least a defined process and schedule.

Fixed service data caps reviews will follow the process used in the Connect America Fund subsidy program for service providers. That’s benchmarked against a regular assessment of urban data consumption.

Mobile speed and data caps won’t be as rigorously reviewed. FCC staff will only have to “consider updating the mobile broadband speed standard” annually, with the suggestion that the same kind of data be used as with the fixed service review. Mobile data caps will ramp up to 2 GB by the end of 2018, with further increases more or less based on the usage level of 70% of mobile subscribers.

What started out as a 150-page broadband lifeline rulebook has grown to more than 200 pages. It allows ample room for mischief by industry lobbyists, but it also offers possible ways to counter that kind of deep pocketed political influence at the FCC as the years go on.