Through a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) released on Tuesday, the FCC announced it was “starting afresh” in preparing its next annual report to Congress on the progress of broadband deployment to the U.S. population. Pursuant to Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC is directed to report annually to Congress on the status of advanced telecommunications deployment and to take prescriptive action if the agency concludes that such capability is not being rolled out to Americans in a “timely and reasonable” manner. Shortly after assuming the FCC chairmanship in January, Chairman Ajit Pai pulled from circulation the draft Section 706 report that had been prepared late last year under the leadership of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
In 2015, and in previous editions of the Section 706 report going back to 2010, the FCC concluded that advanced telecommunications capability was not being deployed in a timely and reasonable manner. Writing to Wheeler in February 2016, Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Communications Subcommittee claimed that the FCC findings against reasonable and timely deployment were related to the agency’s “party-line” decisions in those years to change the definition of broadband and to raise “threshold speeds for what services qualify as broadband.” Reminding Wheeler that “the plain language of Section 706 clearly states that the FCC should rely on the private sector to spur deployment—and that the FCC should help incent private investment by removing barriers,” the lawmakers called on Wheeler at the time “to help us understand the FCC’s decision-making.”
With the goal of seeking “objective data and other evidence reflecting the state of broadband deployment and availability,” the latest NOI calls on consumers, service providers, public interest groups and other affected parties “to help us determine the most effective ways to complete this statutorily-mandated task.” Toward that end, the FCC asks stakeholders to “bring to our attention new issues concerning the deployment and availability of advanced telecommunications capability and recommend new ways to measure and evaluate deployment and availability.” While the NOI proposes to maintain the FCC’s current minimum broadband speed threshold of 25 Mbps upstream/3 Mbps downstream, comment is requested on whether other speed benchmarks should be considered and whether a speed benchmark should also be adopted for mobile broadband services. The NOI also solicits input on whether fixed and mobile broadband services should be evaluated as “separate and distinct ways to achieve advanced telecommunications capability” and whether deployment should be evaluated “based on the presence of both fixed and mobile services.” Comments on the NOI are due on September 7, and the deadline for replies is September 22.