How fast is a broadband Internet connection?
That question is at the heart of a controversy at the Federal Communications Commission. After a study about connection speeds in the U.S. last year, the FCC decided that too few people had access to high-speed Internet.
But that conclusion never sat right with the commission’s Republicans, who argued that the agency set too high a bar in deciding what counts as broadband. Now that the GOP is in the majority at the agency, the FCC is considering new guidelines for gauging the availability and competitiveness of high-speed Internet. There’s no specific proposal yet, but based on their past statements there’s a good chance those same commissioners will vote to lower it. That could affect how much funding is available to expand broadband networks into rural or low-income areas.
The issue hasn’t received as much attention as the debate over net neutrality, but Roberto Gallardo, a researcher at Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development, worries that lower standards would reduce the motivation of broadband providers to expand service into rural communities, which already lag behind urban areas in both speed and availability of high-speed Internet.
If the FCC decides that rural areas and poor neighborhoods have adequate coverage, future funding for Internet infrastructure upgrades could receive short shrift, said Harold Feld, a senior vice president of the digital-rights advocacy group Public Knowledge.
According to the FCC’s 2016 report, about 39 percent of rural Americans lacked access to a 25-megabit-per-second Internet connection, the agency’s threshold for broadband and sufficient speed to support multiple people streaming video simultaneously. Urban dwellers were better off, with only 4 percent lacking access. But even in the cities, there wasn’t much competition. Only 44 percent of urban residents lived someplace where they could choose between more than one provider that offered connection speeds of 25 mbps or faster.
By law, the FCC is required to regularly assess whether “advanced telecommunications” technologies are reaching the public quickly enough, and to take action if not. The Obama-era FCC interpreted this mandate to mean that it must promote the adoption of ever-faster Internet speeds. In 2015, it changed its definition of broadband from 4 mbps to 25 mbps for downloads, citing bandwidth-hungry new technologies, such as 4K resolution televisions that could one day become the norm.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an industry group, opposed the changes, arguing in a letter to the FCC that 25 mbps wasn’t necessary for streaming 4K TV and that the agency’s evaluation should be built on current typical broadband usage, not expected future use.
Republican FCC commissioners Ajit Pai (now the chair of the agency) and Michael O’Rielly also opposed the change. O’Rielly argued that mobile Internet could act as a viable substitute for home broadband. Both accused the FCC of setting the bar artificially high to justify government intervention into the broadband market. “The ultimate goal is to seize new, virtually limitless authority to regulate the broadband marketplace,” Pai wrote in his objection to the FCC’s decision to set the 25 mbps minimum.
In August, the FCC took the first steps toward changing the agency’s standards by publishing what’s called a “notice of proposed rule making.” The document suggests a minimum standard of 10 mbps for mobile broadband, for which there’s now no standard, and asks whether the 25 mbps minimum for home broadband should be lowered and whether communities served by either mobile or home broadband should be considered adequately served.
Gallardo, the Purdue researcher, argues that mobile broadband is no replacement for home broadband. While it’s possible to use a mobile connection with a laptop or desktop computer, even carriers that offer “unlimited” data plans will often throttle users to slower speeds if they actually use much data. He also argues that while 10 mbps might be good enough for most households today, future applications will likely demand more bandwidth, and it’s important to make sure the country’s most disadvantaged communities are ready for those changes. “It’s like asking ‘Why build a four-lane highway when we already have a two-lane highway?’ “ he said. “The investment needs to be done now — we’re falling behind.”
Feld, of Public Knowledge, said some federal broadband subsidies will not be affected even if the FCC lowers its standards, because those programs only require carriers to offer 10 mbps connections. But he warns that state programs that rely on the FCC’s definition to target their own broadband initiatives might be affected, as could Internet connectivity programs at the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.
A potentially bigger impact: If and when Congress creates an infrastructure spending program, the amount of money directed to Internet infrastructure could depend in part on what the FCC says about the existing availability and capability of broadband connections. In other words, trying to define away the problem means it’s less likely to be solved.
Klint Finley is a writer with Wired Business.