Congress wants annual reports. The FCC delivers. The rest of us yawn.

The Commission has released its Seventh Broadband Deployment Notice of Inquiry (7th NOI), the ostensible purpose of which is to determine whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

As we glance through it, our overriding question is: Why?

The simple answer is because Congress said so. In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress required the Commission to crank out such reports on an annual basis. It’s that time of year again, for the seventh time.

But the FCC already has most of the answers to the questions it asks, answers which are, in fact, pretty obvious both historically and logically. The FCC could as easily have skipped over the subject matter of the 7th NOI and jumped right to the heart of the matter: namely, what can, or should, the FCC do about the unmistakable fact that some folks don’t have broadband service?

The starting point of the 7th NOI branches off from the previous year’s effort, which was completed only last month with the release of the 2010 Sixth Broadband Deployment Report (6th Report). As my colleague Mitchell Lazarus reported, in the 6th Report the Commission redefined broadband as “a transmission service that actually enables an end user to download content at speeds of at least 4 megabits per second (Mbps) and to upload content at speeds of at least 1 Mbps . . .”

The FCC already knows that, under this new definition, somewhere between 14 million and 24 million Americans are unserved by broadband. It also knows that areas of low population density and low income are often the last to receive service, whether it is cable or broadband or anything else. With that in mind, the crux of the 7th NOI lies in the FCC’s comment: “Should we consider affordability as a component of broadband availability?” The Commission appears to be asking whether broadband should still be deemed “available” if a provider offers it, but at too high a price for local residents to manage.

The 7th NOI also discusses the merits of maps that visually depict broadband availability, produced by both the FCC and NTIA.  The FCC maps are here. The NTIA maps, for which NTIA has awarded more than $100 million in grants toward state efforts, are still in progress. Confusingly, the NTIA work is based on a definition of broadband less demanding than the FCC’s: at least 768 kilobits per second (kbps) downstream and at least 200 kbps upstream to end users. (One might legitimately question why one agency is spending $100 million to generate maps based on a standard which another agency has already chosen to ignore, but we need not explore that issue here.)

The FCC finds a special need to focus on broadband service to Native Homeland areas. Among other sobering data, only 12.5% of households in Native American areas subscribe to a broadband service faster than dialup, compared to 56% of all households nationwide. 

Among other details, the 7th NOI asks:

  • Is the current definition of broadband service the correct one?
  • Should “broadband” and the statutory term “advanced telecommunications capacity” be treated synonymously?
  • How should the Commission interpret the word “available” for purposes of broadband service? Is affordability a component of broadband availability?
  • Should broadband data be analyzed on a census tract or county basis?
  • Should the Commission’s analysis of broadband availability take into account other ways in which it is available, such as through schools and Wi-Fi hotspots?

Obviously, many valid questions can be asked. But bear in mind that the Commission has already asked many broadband-related questions. In the last four months of 2009 alone, the FCC issued no fewer than 30 separate inquiries related to broadband. And that doesn’t count the proceedings that have been initiated in the wake of the adoption of the National Broadband Plan last March. (We described some of those here.) Many, if not most, of these inquiries tend to be wide-ranging. The net result is a flood of information already swamping the Commission. While information is essential to a healthy regulatory eco-system, too much information can overwhelm and ultimately prevent productive growth, much like floodwaters destroy crops.

For those inclined to carry more coal to Newcastle-on-the-Potomac, comments are due September 7, 2010, and reply comments on October 5.  The FCC is already planning yet another proceeding to collect and analyze more detailed and accurate industry-wide data on several key broadband metrics, including subscribership, actual availability, penetration, performance, prices, churn, and bundles, for both consumers and business customers. We can’t wait.