FCC: Three to Six Million Unserved By Broadband

Broadband task force status report says current government funding won't be enough to achieve universal adoption

The FCC says 3 million to 6 million people are "unserved" by basic broadand service, and that current government funding won't be enough to get broadband to all of them.

"[C]urrent mechanisms, such as Universal Service and stimulus grants, are insufficient to achieve national purposes," according to a status report Tuesday from members of the FCC's broadband task force.

The government has allocated $7.2 billion in stimulus grants and loans for broadband, while the FCC is considering expanding the Universal Service Fund (which telecom compnanies pay into to subsidize phone service) to include underwriting broadband in hard-to-reach or uneconomical-to-reach areas.

In a status report on the current state of broadband deployment, according to an embargoed copy of the highlights, staffers reported that between 3 million and 6 million people do not have access to basic broadband, defined as speeds of no more than 768 kbps, and that even where basic and high speed broadband is available, advertised speeds lag actual speeds by 50% and perhaps more during peak periods.

Peak hours of the network congestion that slows down that traffic are in the evening (7 p.m.-10 p.m.), says the task force, with 1% of users accounting for 20% of the traffic, and 20% accounting for up to 80%. "A constrained network dictates investment needs in infrastructure."

It is also the argument that cable and telcos make for having to manage their networks or perhaps charge more to the 1% taking up 20% of capacity.

A third (33%) of those who have access don't subscribe, says the task force. It has commissioned a survey to help understand how certain factors affect that adoption, specifically ttitudes twoard broadband and technology, cost, and "personal context," which includes home environment, access to anchor instituions like libraries, and the impact of disabily.

It expects to have some answers from that survey in November.

Universal adoption is key because the government and industry are moving their public and private business to the Internet. "The cost of digital exclusion is large and growing for non-adopters," the task force says, "as resources for employment, education, news, health care and shopping for goods and services increasingly move on line."

Echoing a common theme of late, the task force says that wireless broadband is the next big broadband delivery system, with "smartphone sales projected to overtake sales of standard phones by 2011." Saying the bandwidth-hungry devices are straining capacity, the staffers say the task force is "actively assessing the long-term spectrum needs of the country for mobile broadband services."

The task force is working on the FCC's national broadband plan to Congress, due Feb. 17, 2010. The plan must take into account health care, education, energy, public safety, as well as the direct stimulus goals of job creation and investment.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the broadband effort would be data-driven and include public participation, and he has proved as good as his word.

According to the task force, it has held 26 workshops with six more scheduled, featuring 230 witnesses testifying so far. It has also received over 40,000 pages of written comments, plus 300 comments in response to blog postings on blog.broadband.gov.