10/6 FCC Reply Comments On Section 706 and Broadband Deployment

New America's Open Technology Institute filed reply comments with the Federal Communications Commission providing input on how the Commission should review the deployment of broadband internet access services as part of its obligations under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The reply comments respond to arguments in the record, and reiterate OTI's position that mobile-only broadband internet access services are not a reasonable substitute for fixed BIAS. The limitations of mobile including data caps, high costs, lower throughput, and weaker signal reliability restrict it as just a complement to fixed services. Below is an executive summary of OTI's reply comments:

The current proceeding is crucial in guiding how the Federal Communications Commission (“the Commission”) encourages better access to broadband internet access services (“BIAS”) across the country, particularly in rural and other under and unserved areas. How the Commission measures “advanced telecommunications capability” and whether it has been deployed in a “reasonable and timely” fashion will have a direct impact on the digital divide.

First, the record shows the Commission should not measure the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability based on the presence of either mobile BIAS or fixed BIAS because the two services are not substitutes. Mobile BIAS has limited capabilities, compared to high-capacity fixed BIAS, due to restrictions on the amount of data carriers allow their customers to use (e.g., the 22 GB “soft cap” that applies to even so-called “unlimited” plans by the two dominant mobile carriers), lower reliability of signal reception, higher costs for consumers, and lower and often inconsistent throughput. These limitations preclude users from relying on mobile BIAS as the primary source of internet access for their personal use at home or for work purposes. Consumer behavior demonstrates that mobile BIAS is a complement to fixed BIAS, and not a substitute, as research shows Americans buy both fixed and mobile BIAS when they have the means. Consumers still rely heavily on fixed BIAS networks for access, even when using mobile devices such as phones or tablets.

The record also shows support for the Commission to study how the affordability of BIAS, the data allowances imposed by BIAS providers, and latency all affect access to advanced telecommunications capability. These three factors are critical elements of advanced telecommunications capability. Open Technology Institute (OTI) agrees with these commenters, and recommends the Commission consider these as part of its Section 706 inquiry.

Second, the Commission cannot implement a different throughput benchmark for mobile BIAS than other technologies such as fixed BIAS, as Section 706 requires the Commission to define “advanced telecommunications capability” in a technology-neutral manner. The Commission must measure mobile BIAS by whatever benchmark it sets for fixed BIAS, as the threshold the Commission imposes for advanced telecommunications capability must apply to all transmission technologies. Further, OTI urges the Commission to either increase the throughput benchmark or at the very least retain the 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload threshold.

Last, the Commission should move rapidly to finalize its vacant channel proceeding and ensure at least 18 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum in TV White Spaces on a nationwide basis. The Commission should also rapidly implement shared spectrum frameworks, most notably the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (“CBRS”) and the underutilized 3700 MHz- 4200 MHz band to improve the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability in rural and other underserved areas. The Commission should reject calls from the carriers to change the licensing framework under the CBRS rules that would make licenses unaffordable to all but the largest mobile carriers. The Commission should also take up a rulemaking to create a new, licensed, point-to-multipoint fixed wireless service in the 3700 MHz- 4200 MHz band to facilitate high-capacity and affordable broadband in rural and other low-density areas.