With net neutrality effectively dead (barring long-shot lawsuits or miraculous Congressional competence), the FCC under GOP Chair Ajit Pai is turning its attention to another pressing matter — the state of America’s broadband. Specifically, the FCC thinks broadband speed in America is probably defined too aggressively and it wants to relax the overall standards carriers are allowed to meet. The issues we’ll be discussing here are up for a vote on February 3.
The FCC splits broadband providers into two groups: wireless and fixed (also sometimes called ‘wireline’). Historically, the FCC has set minimum standards that fixed broadband providers had to meet, both for marketing purposes and in order to qualify for any Connect America funding. The CA program is the spiritual descendent of federal cost-sharing agreements that subsidized the interstate system, telephony build-outs, and electricity across rural parts of the country.
In 2011, the FCC declared that rural service needed to offer at least 4Mbps down and 1Mbps up. In 2014 the FCC bumped that to 10/1, and in 2015 to 25/3. At the time, the cable industry and various ISPs cried foul, claiming 25/3 was much too fast. Then-FCC chairperson Tom Wheeler pointed out that ISPs seemed to have no trouble marketing their services to people as if huge bandwidth pipes were a functional requirement of the modern internet, and that higher broadband standards would be needed with customers increasingly streaming media and adopting 4K TV.
Ajit Pai, the current FCC Chair, wants to make a number of changes to the current standards. Up until now, the question of having access to broadband service has hinged on whether Americans could buy fixed/wireline service at a qualifying speed and there’s been no minimum standard set for wireless broadband deployments. Under Pai, the FCC proposes the following:
- A new wireless broadband definition (10Mbps down, 1Mbps up), with the wired standard unchanged.
- Broadband availability determined based on wireless or wireline service, not wireline alone.
Simultaneously implementing the 10/1 standard for wireless and allowing wireless or fixed service to qualify as broadband will reduce the number of Americans who officially lack access to affordable service and/or acceptable performance without actually doing anything to improve the problem.
Wireless and Wired Broadband Service Aren’t Fungible
The FCC’s statement of inquiry correctly notes that Americans burn enormous amounts of mobile data at ever-increasing rates, but that doesn’t mean mobile and fixed broadband service are remotely equivalent. Unlimited cellular data plans are substantially more expensive than fixed service and they aren’t actually unlimited. Every plan from every carrier reserves the right to start throttling you after a certain amount of data usage per month.
A single household with a fixed wireline connection can split that connection between four different people without difficulty and for minimal additional cost. A household with multiple users who rely on a single cell phone data plan is going to pay substantially more for the same internet access. Cellular latencies are much more varied than their wireline counterparts, and cellular connectivity can vary enormously from place to place. I’ve lived in rural areas where cellular speeds were so low, I had to buy a femtocell and backhaul cellular voice and data over a wireline network in order to use my phone for voice or data. Carrier-reported performance, as measured at the cell phone tower, is not an adequate replacement or substitute for high-speed wireline work. Wireless and wireline service are not equivalent and should not be treated as such, particularly when it comes to ensuring that all Americans have access to internet service at acceptable speeds and prices.
But changing these requirements is a fabulous boon for ISPs, which now face little scrutiny for their attempts to push consumers towards highly lucrative wireless plans with minimum performance metrics and little-to-no guarantee of acceptable service. It’s extremely common, if you live in rural parts of the US, to have 2-3 hypothetical wireless carriers and 0-1 that can actually provide a useful service. The FCC’s new rules would entrench that system even more.
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