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FCC Report Finds Subpar Broadband Speeds

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A new report assessing the broadband landscape has found that more than half of U.S. households don’t meet the Federal Communications Commission’s goal for universal service speeds laid out in its national broadband plan.

The FCC reported that of the 71 million connections it evaluated, just 44 percent met the agency’s speed goal of 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps up.

Separately, the FCC has announced the tentative agenda for its open meeting later this month, which notably excludes a controversial proposal to reclassify broadband service in an effort to shore up the agency’s regulatory authority over the sector.

Instead, when the commissioners meet Sept. 23, they plan to consider an item that would finalize the rules for new wireless devices tapping into the unused bands of TV spectrum known as white spaces, as well as an order to overhaul the E-Rate program used to defray the costs of connecting schools and other community anchor institutions to broadband service. Additionally, the FCC plans to consider two items relating to E911 service.

By omitting the reclassification order, the FCC is averting, at least for the time being, a major controversy that has seen vigorous opposition from cable and phone companies and their political allies to the proposal to move toward more binding regulatory oversight.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski had proposed reclassifying broadband as a so-called Title II service following a court ruling earlier this year that struck down the FCC’s authority over broadband providers under the current legal designation. Service providers have objected that such a move would impose new and burdensome regulations that would curb innovation and investment in their networks.

But Genachowski has vowed that any reclassification effort would entail significant safeguards to protect ISPs from many of the regulations that were developed for monopoly-era phone companies. Moreover, he argued that the legal uncertainty in which the FCC is currently mired has left it unable to move on many elements of the national broadband plan.

The commission’s new report on broadband data highlights overall increases in adoption of high-speed Internet service, but suggests that the current landscape falls well short of the goals of the FCC’s plan. A central pillar of the commission’s proposal for bridging the adoption gap involved a long-debated overhaul of the Universal Service Fund, the federal telecom subsidy program, to encourage deployment and adoption of broadband in rural and low-income areas.

But Genachowski and his legal team have argued that the court ruling put the commission’s ability to act on that and other proposals in the plan in question.

The report, which analyzed data from June 30, 2009, found modest increases in the adoption of cable modem and DSL service. In the fixed-line segment, fiber connections saw the biggest growth, with adoption surging 23 percent to 4 million households over the preceding six months.

The commission also found strong growth in the wireless sector, reporting that the number of wireless subscribers with full data plans jumped 40 percent over the first half of the year to 35 million.

The new report reflects an effort on the part of the commission to collect and publish more finely grained data on broadband speeds and access than previous studies. The FCC has broken out the adoption rates by tiers of connection speeds, for instance, offering a more nuanced picture of the broadband landscape than the catch-all “high-speed” designation used to describe all connection speeds above 200 Kbps in years past.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at “>, the network for technology professionals.

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