Critics can’t believe the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is considering lowering the broadband standard from the current 25 megabits per second download speed (and 3 mbps upload speed) to 10 mbps/1 mbps, the previous standard prior to an increase under former chairman Tom Wheeler in 2015.
But, what critics won’t say is that raising that metric had an adverse effect on the effort to solve the broadband gap. After raising that standard, suddenly those areas with speeds below 10 mbps were lumped into the same group with those who could access speeds of 10-25 mbps, resulting in diminished focus on those areas where the broadband gap cut the deepest.
Raising the standard meant, too, that fans of big government could point to the suddenly higher percentage of the population that was “underserved” on internet speeds and call for more taxpayer money to solve that “problem.”
It’s true that those using DSL and other lower-tiered technologies that churn along in the single digits of speed find major slowdowns in streaming video on more than one device, while downloading major files such as a movie or an Xbox One game, for example, can take hours. But speeds around 10 mbps are dubbed “typical” by, of all companies, Google, which has been at the forefront of gigabit internet. The company, on its phone app’s speed test, gives the indication that speed is adequate for most home use.
That hasn’t stopped advocates of government broadband from crowing about the need for faster internet. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, for example, has argued the standard should be significantly higher than 25 mbps.
“I think our new threshold should be 100 mbps – and gigabit speed should be in our sights,” she said last year. “I believe anything short of goals like this shortchanges our children, our future and our digital economy.”
Few would argue that faster internet is a better thing, but bureaucrats have used the FCC’s higher standards as leverage to siphon more money from taxpayers.
Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., are among the leaders of the Senate Broadband Caucus that have pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service (RUS) to boost its standards following the FCC’s increase. And, not surprisingly, they have also attempted to double funding for RUS’ broadband programs.
The trend is also happening at the state level. After a task force on broadband in Minnesota created a goal to match the FCC’s standard by 2022 and a stretch goal of 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload by 2026, the latter goal became the de facto standard for state-based funding of local broadband projects.
Areas that wouldn’t have been eligible for state grants have become eligible for the funding, creating more competition for rural areas that are truly underserved.
“Some of us felt broadband grants should be targeted first to unserved areas,” said a task force member who spoke only on background. “I don’t think you can reasonably say that someone who is getting 50 megabits per second is underserved.”
It’s also important to point out that faster internet costs more. This is particularly relevant to the conversation due to the findings in the Volunteer State, where the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development surveyed residents in 2016 and found that most can access broadband but choose to use cheaper options.
The study found that while 87 percent of Tennessee residents can receive broadband, less than a quarter of residents subscribe to the service.
One aspect of that study examined the cost to connect every Tennessee home with broadband that doesn’t currently have it and found a significant difference when considering the old broadband standard versus the new one. Using the FCC’s old 10/1 standard, the cost would fall between $819 million and $1.26 billion. Going by the new standard of 25/3 the cost would jump to between $1.17 billion and $1.72 billion.
In its notice of inquiry about broadband speeds, required annually by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, the FCC notes that consumer choice could be considered a factor in the broadband determination.
"If consumers who have the choice of service offering speeds of 15 or 25 Mbps largely choose 15 Mbps service, should that influence our determination of what constitutes advanced telecommunications capability?" the FCC asks.
In the consideration of reducing the standard, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who dissented in the vote for the increase as commissioner, is also taking into account both the current state and the future promise of mobile broadband. Most carrier services now offer mobile download speeds of around 10 mbps – which is no longer technically mobile broadband after the FCC raised the standard.
But much faster speeds are on the way. Verizon, for example, is testing 5G technology this year, with plans to roll it out in the next few years. This technology will have download speeds approaching 1 gigabit per second, and has been dubbed “wireless fiber.”
It’s expected to cost about half what it would take to string actual fiber to homes and businesses. “With wireless fiber, the so-called last mile can be a virtual connection dramatically changing our cost structure,” Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said last year.
So while Pai’s critics denigrate him because his FCC is considering lowering that broadband standard, he’s just correcting an earlier mistake, with the realization that the free market, not big government, will solve the rural broadband gap if given enough time. And returning to the old standards will help ensure that the focus will be placed squarely on the areas that need the most help.