FCC doesn't know enough about competition, or lack thereof, says GAO

23 September 2017 by Steve Blum
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The Federal Communications Commission needs better information about broadband competition, according to a report by the federal government accountability office. Existing data shows that 51% of U.S. residents only have access to one provider that offers at least a minimum level of broadband service, which the GAO defines using the FCC’s own advanced services standard of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

The agency collects a lot of data, including information about how many broadband providers serve a given market, but not key information about prices and service offerings, the GAO report said

As indicated by FCC’s broadband data, competition does not exist in all areas. As discussed above, about half of Americans have access to only one fixed broadband provider, and although most Americans have access to multiple choices for mobile broadband service, FCC and experts acknowledge that fixed and mobile service are not fully substitutable for one another…

FCC’s data and reports, as discussed, provide information on the extent of broadband deployment and other indicators of consumer experience with broadband service, but these data and reports do not show how broadband prices and service quality vary based on the number of choices that consumers have for broadband service. FCC officials told us that it is difficult to assess the effect of competition on broadband price and service quality without data showing prices and service quality indicators by the number of providers in a given area.

The FCC considered collecting price and product information in 2011, but gave up on the idea after industry lobbyists pushed back. As a substitute, the GAO report recommends soliciting “the views of stakeholders and others” on an annual basis.

The problem with this approach is that FCC regularly receives input – sometimes a flood of comments – on a wide variety of topics, but doesn’t systematically and transparently assess them or consistently incorporate them into decisions. And it’s not above cherrypicking submissions that suit politically driven, predetermined positions.

The GAO is too optimistic. Qualitative opinions and anecdotes are no substitute for hard data.