Hearings on broadband data suggest Congressional push for national strategy

Care to compare US broadband speeds to the rest of the world? Rep.

Care to compare US broadband speeds to the rest of the world? Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) did yesterday, in hearings on how the FCC measures availability. The US lags in speed, availability and value, Markey said and charged that the FCC "has not kept pace with the times or the technology," reports Ars Technica.

Problems with the FCC's broadband data collection methodology have been well-known for years, and Congress is finally poised to step in and tell the agency how to fix the problem. The Broadband Census of America Act, currently in draft form, asks the FCC to increase its broadband threshold speed from 200Kbps to 2Mbps and to stop claiming that a ZIP code has broadband access if even a single resident in that ZIP code does. It also asks the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to prepare a map for the web that will show all this data in a searchable, consumer-friendly format.

One of the contentious issues is the definition of "high-speed." Right now, anyone offering 200Kbps can say it's a "high-speed" offering. If the bill defines high-speed as 2Mbps or faster, companies will have to offer that in order to make the "true" broadband claim.

Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America, said that the US is "stuck with a 20th century Internet." Ben Scott of Free Press suggested the definition should be able to evolve over time, in contrast to the current FCC definition which hasn't changed in nine years. "We have always been limited by the FCC's inadequate and flawed data," he said.

Industry was not happy with the proposal, arguing that 768Kbps DSL lines in rural areas are a a massive improvement over dial-up speeds and should be counted. Kyle McSlarrow, who heads the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (and who was yesterday calling for a vastly reduced FCC), cautioned against the government trying to foist a grand strategy on industry. "It's not like the marketplace isn't addressing consumer demand," pointing out that Comcast recently demoed 100Mbps cable technology.

The representatives appeared most interested in the testimony of Brian Mefford, CEO of ConnectKentucky. ConnectKentucky is a public/private partnership that has boosted broadband availability from 60 percent to more than 90 percent in just two and a half years and used mapping techniques to identify current gaps in service.

Once those were discovered, the group helped to create a regulatory environment that encouraged private investment, then partnered with companies on a market-driven approach to rolling out new lines, even in rural areas. 80 percent of the funding came from state and federal government agencies, while 20 percent was put up by the companies involved. By the end of this year, 100 percent of Kentucky homes should be able to access broadband of at least 768Kbps.