On August 9, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) released a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) seeking comment on the current state of the deployment and availability of “advanced telecommunications capability (“ATC”) to all Americans” under Section 706 (GN Docket No. 18-238, FCC 18-119). Though the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report (the “2018 Report”) found that telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans, the FCC also found that many Americans still do not have access to high-speed broadband and efforts to close the digital divide must be continued. The NOI asks for specific comment on the following topics:

Statutory Framework for Broadband Deployment

  • Progress in Deployment: The Commission seeks comment on its proposal to assess progress in deployment using the same progress-based approach as it did in the 2018 Report. Specifically, the FCC asks whether it should use the same four categories (fixed services only; mobile LTE services only; fixed and mobile LTE services; fixed or mobile LTE services) to evaluate fixed and mobile services, and whether it should again rely on a 5-year time period to evaluate these services. The NOI also seeks comment on whether it should include additional speed tiers to its upcoming report, and if so which ones. (¶¶ 6-7).
  • Criteria and Benchmarks for Assessing Fixed and Mobile Services:
    • Fixed Services: The NOI proposes to continue using the same speed benchmark as the 2018 Report (25 Mbps/3Mbps) to access whether fixed services are providing ATC. (¶ 8).
    • Mobile services: To evaluate mobile service speeds, the NOI proposes to use 5 Mbps/1 Mbps as a starting point and integrating data at a median of 10 Mbps/3 Mbps or higher. The FCC seeks comment on this proposal. (¶ 9).
    • Updating Benchmarks: The FCC seeks comment on what methodology could be used to update the benchmarks, noting the challenges and lack of granularity in publicly available mobile data. (¶ 10).
    • Substitutes: The FCC seeks comment on whether, and to what extent fixed and mobile services of similar functionality are substitutes for each other. The NOI also seeks comment on whether or not it should consider other non-fixed technologies as substitutes for fixed services. (¶ 11).
  • Schools and Classrooms: In the 2018 Report, the Commission measured the availability of ATC in schools and classrooms using the short term goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff and the long term goal of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff. The NOI proposes to use these same evaluation methods. (¶ 12).
  • Tribal Lands: The FCC seeks comment on how it should track and measure the deployment of ATC on Tribal Lands. It specifically asks about percentage of population served and percentage of geography served as ways to track deployment, as well as any other considerations that would prevent deployment (i.e., higher costs, rights-of-way, interconnection). (¶¶ 13-14).
  • Disaster Affected Areas: The NOI seeks comment on how to evaluate and address deployment in natural disaster-affected areas, and how to account for restoration efforts, funding, and storm hardening in evaluating progress. (¶ 15).

Data Sources and Analysis

  • Deployment Data for Fixed Services: The Commission acknowledges that Form 477 deployment data can overstate the deployment of services and proposes to use Form 477 data for deployment data from 2014 onward, but rely on State Broadband Initiative (“SBI”) data for deployment data before 2014. The FCC also proposes to present estimates for satellite broadband as it did in the 2018 Report, and seeks comment on any possible limitations in the geographic scope of reported satellite coverage. (¶¶ 16-17).
  • Deployment Data for Mobile Services: The FCC used multiple data sources for its 2018 Report. It based deployment estimates on SBI data for 2012 and 2013 and used Form 477 data for 2014-2016, but supplemented the 2014-2016 data with Ookla speed test data. The NOI seeks comment on using the same methodologies for the upcoming report and on whether there are any improvements that should be made to those methodologies. (¶ 18).
  • Americans with Access to Advanced Telecommunications Services: The NOI proposes to use the 2018 Report calculation to determine whether there is at least one provider of services per census block providing ATC, and proposes to calculating the number of Americans with access to fixed ATC by summing the population of all of the census blocks with at least one provider of services. (¶ 19).
  • Deployment Data for Schools: The FCC seeks comment on its proposal to again rely on publicly available data to evaluate developments in the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to schools. (¶ 20).
  • Deployment Data for Tribal Lands: The NOI asks whether there are other sources of information aside from deployment in census blocks to examine deployment on Tribal lands. It also seeks comment on whether it should continue to group federally recognized Tribal lands into four groups or whether it should summarize the deployment data on a more disaggregated basis, and if there are more informative categories that could be used to present the data. (¶ 21).
  • Disaster Affected Areas: The 2018 Report excluded data from U.S. Territories because it did not take into account damage caused by hurricanes in 2017, and including this data could have overstated deployment in those areas. Now, the FCC seeks comment on whether it should exclude data from U.S. Territories again, or if it does include this data, asks how to account for the extensive hurricane damage to communications infrastructure and electrical grid in those territories. The FCC also seeks comment on what types of methods it can use in the wake of disasters to measure the extent of communications infrastructure damage. (¶ 22).

Commission Efforts to Close the Digital Divide

  • The FCC seeks comment on its ongoing efforts to spur broadband deployment and close the digital divide, specifically on its efforts to remove regulatory barriers and provide USF funding, and asks about any additional efforts it might undertake to drive deployment of ATC. The NOI also seeks comment on its current efforts to expand access to spectrum (i.e., the 2.5 GHz proceeding, the Spectrum Frontiers proceeding) and asks if there are any other ways to expand access to spectrum for wireless and satellite broadband services. (¶¶ 23-26).

Comments are due September 10, 2018.

Reply Comments are due September 24, 2018.

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