TR Daily Free Press Urges Revisions to Draft Section 706 Report
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Friday, March 8, 2019

Free Press Urges Revisions to Draft Section 706 Report

In response to the circulation of a draft FCC report on broadband deployment, or advanced telecommunications capability, and citing an apparent large-scale over-reporting of deployment by one Internet service provider (ISP), Free Press has urged the FCC to withhold release of the 2019 report until revisions are made.

In a press release last month announcing the circulation of the draft report, commonly known as the section 706 report after the section of the Communications Act that first mandated it, the FCC said that it concludes that “[t]he digital divide between Americans with and without access to modern broadband networks has narrowed substantially” and that “advanced telecommunications services — broadband — is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis” (TR Daily, Feb. 19).

Section 706 of the Act directs the FCC to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market” if it determines the advanced telecommunications capability is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

In a statement responding to the Free Press ex parte filing and its calls for revising the draft broadband report, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “The FCC’s draft report concludes that broadband deployment is reasonable and timely across the country. This is hard to believe when millions of Americans have no high-speed service at home. Now there are allegations that the FCC’s numbers in this report may be based on faulty data. This is not good. It absolutely deserves a closer look.”

The other Democratic FCC Commissioner, Geoffrey Starks, said, “Free Press’s allegations are troubling. The FCC’s maps are frequently criticized for being inaccurate and overstating broadband coverage. The maps and deployment data are becoming a repeat offender. In fact, just last week, [Agriculture] Secretary Sonny Perdue, who also has a big role to play when it comes to our government’s rural broadband initiatives, sharply criticized the FCC’s deployment maps. I am digging in to the data underlying Free Press’s filing and I hope the Chairman does as well. Without getting to the bottom of this, the FCC should not proceed with its current draft broadband report. It is the FCC’s job to have accurate data and to make available maps based on it. Without performing that basic function, we are woefully unprepared to make a number of critical policy decisions that will impact the future of our communications infrastructure. I disagree with the rosy picture that the Chairman painted when he described the Commission’s draft broadband report last month and news like this just makes matters worse.”

Neither the office of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai nor those of his Republican colleagues, Commissioners Mike O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, provided comments or statements on the Free Press filing in response to TR Daily’s requests by our news deadline.

In a March 5 ex parte filing in GN docket 18-238, Free Press wrote that the inclusion of the data over-reporting deployment “results in a massive over-statement of the change in broadband deployment at the national level during 2017. Free Press respectfully submits that this error is of such magnitude that the Commission must address it prior to adopting the 2019 Report.”

In conducting analysis of the deployment data, Free Press noticed that a new Form 477 filer, Barrier Communications Corporation (d/b/a BarrierFree), claimed deployment of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) and fixed wireless services to census blocks containing nearly 62 million persons. This claimed level of deployment would make BarrierFree the fourth largest U.S. ISP in terms of population coverage, which Free Press described as “an implausible suggestion, to put it mildly.”

Free Press pointed out that “BarrierFree appears to have simply submitted as its coverage area a list of every single Census block in each of eight states in which it claimed service.” BarrierFree says it serves Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

Free Press said that statements by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai when he announced the circulation of the draft report were apparently based on incorrect data stemming from the Form 477 submitted by BarrierFree. Free Press disputed Chairman Pai’s statement that “since last year’s report, the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 [megabits per second downstream]/3 Mbps [upstream] has dropped by over 25%, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017.” In response, Free Press said that with BarrierFree removed from the data, the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection at the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps threshold declined to 21.3 million, not 19.4 million.

Free Press also challenged Chairman Pai’s claim as to the number of Americans with access to fixed 100 Mbps/10 Mbps service. Chairman Pai said in a press release that the number of Americans with 100 Mbps/10 Mbps service increased by nearly 20%, from 244.3 million to 290.9 million. But Free Press said that with BarrierFree removed from the data, the number of Americans served at this threshold increased to 288.4 million persons, not the 290.9 million claimed by Chairman Pai.

Free Press disputed the FCC claim for the number of rural Americans with access to broadband service, as well as the claim that capital expenditures by broadband providers increased in 2017, reversing declines that occurred in both 2015 and 2016. Moreover, Free Press challenged the FCC claim that the private sector has responded to FCC reforms by deploying fiber to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded.

Free Press called the draft report on increased access to broadband a form of political grandstanding. “It is questionable whether Commission policy during Chairman Pai’s tenure has had any impact on broadband deployment,” Free Press said. “The notion that Chairman Pai’s actions moved these deployment numbers in any way is wholly unsupported by the evidence, and such grandstanding does not belong in Commission Reports to Congress.”

Because Free Press believed that the data used to analyze the report on broadband deployment should be of the highest quality, and given the obvious errors that includes “blatant over-reporting by BarrierFree,” Free Press strongly urged the FCC to withhold release of the 2019 report until revised. —Brian Craig and Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

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